Lets Consider Our Standards for Life

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.”

 

On an initial quick read, this quote seems to be saying, live better than the masses but don’t act like you are better than everyone else. That’s good advice that has been said so many times that it is basically useless. We already all believe that we are morally superior to other people and we are especially likely, according to Robin Hanson in an interview he gave on Conversations with Tyler, to say that our group or tribe is morally  superior to others. If you give the quote a second thought however, you see that there is a deeper meaning within the idea being conveyed.

 

The first thing we should consider is what it would look like to maintain a high standard of life. In his same letter, Seneca advises that a high standard of life does not mean that one wears the nicest possible toga or that one has silver dishes laced with pure gold. A high standard of life is not about maintaining exorbitant material possessions. Advertising in the United States would make you think differently. A high standard of life is advertised to us as driving the finest sports car, demanding the best possible wrist watch, and having exquisitely crafted faucets. Seneca would argue that these things don’t create a high standard of living, but just show off our wealth. I would agree.

 

A high standard of life, Seneca suggests and I would argue, is a well ordered life in which we can live comfortably but don’t embrace the mindset that it is our possessions that define our success and value. A high standard for life means that we cultivate habits which help us be more kind and considerate. We pursue activities and possessions that help us be more effective, less impulsive, and allow us to better use our resources and intelligence.

 

Maintaining this version of a high standard of life can have the same pitfalls we may associate with the Real Housewives of LA if we don’t give thought to the second part of Seneca’s advice. Maintaining high living standards can lead us to selfishness and self-serving decisions if we don’t think about other people and how we operate as a society. Seneca’s advice is about becoming a model for other people and helping become a force that improves lives by encouraging and inspiring others. This idea was echoed in Peter Singer’s book about effective altruism, The Most Good You Can Do. Effective altruists want to direct their efforts, donations, and resources in the direction where they can have the greatest possible positive impact on the world to help the most people possible. One of the ways to do that is to inspire others to also strive to do the most good they can do. No one would follow an effective altruist who gave away all their money and lived a miserable life. But someone would follow an effective altruist who gave a substantial amount of their money to an effective and meaningful charity and still lived an enjoyable and happy life.

 

Our high standard of living in the end should be one that drives us toward continual improvement. A life that makes us more considerate, more thoughtful, less judgmental, and less impulsive. It should encourage others to live in a way that helps them be happier and healthier, rather than living in a way that suggests that having expensive things and showing off is what life is all about.

Aware of Your Feelings of Superiority

In my life I want to remain open to the world around me, try new things, and stretch myself in areas where I recognize I don’t have much experience. In order to successfully live an open and exploratory life, I will have to accept that I am not as great as my ego wants me to believe I am, and I will have to accept that I don’t already know everything I need to know about how to live a good life. If I begin approaching the world as though I already have it figured out and as if my way of life is superior to the way that other people live, then instead of branching out, I will likely turn inward, away from a changing world.

 

“No group ever decided to pull inward and cut off contact with the outside world because they believed their own group was inferior,” Colin Wright wrote in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. It is hard to avoid judging other people, and even easier to judge other groups rather than just other individuals. “Moral superiority is probably some degree of confidence in their social group and their support of their social group. That is, people are especially willing to express moral superiority when they’re expressing the superiority, not of themselves individually, but of the group of people they’re within together,” Robin Hanson stated in an interview with Tyler Cowen for his podcast Conversations with Tyler.

 

Allowing ourselves to see ourselves and our groups as morally superior to others limits our world and puts us in a place where we are less likely to connect with people who are not like us. I see this a lot with the relationships between runners and people who do cross-fit. It seems almost universal that runners criticize cross-fit athletes. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that what is happening is that runners are trying to express their (moral) athletic superiority over cross-fit athletes as a way to justify why they don’t do cross-fit themselves. To acknowledge that cross-fit is a good workout and accept that a cross-fit athlete is just as athletic, talented, hard-working, or smart as a runner places the runner in a position where they have to defend their sport and their choice to do running when a potentially more well-rounded and fun type of exercise exists.

 

The runners versus cross-fit example is just a small example of how our in-group versus out-group thinking manifests in real life. This type of thinking, of believing that we and our group are superior to other groups can have serious consequences. It can lead to our group becoming more close-minded. It can lead to us individually being less open to people who live differently. It can lead to enclaves and divisions within society that see conflict and threat instead of opportunity and learning. By becoming aware of these feelings of superiority, recognizing how frequently these feelings lack any solid rational basis, and by trying something new, we can prevent ourselves and our groups from becoming isolated. This will give us a chance to learn new things, gain insightful experiences, and it will help us provide more value to the world.

Training Our Instincts

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright explains how training in certain areas changes us. “Training our instincts is like feeding our subconscious. It grants us more informed, helpful knee-jerk reactions, rather than blind and potentially damaging impulses.” For examples, Wright writes about the ways that experienced auto mechanics are diagnose vehicle problems in one area of an engine based on a signal in a different area of the engine and he writes about learning to cook in six months and having a new understanding and appreciation for raw ingredients that can be cooked together to make a meal. In isolated cases, things we don’t know about and don’t understand at all can become things that give us clues and slight insights based on our experience and knowledge.

 

Recently, Tyler Cowen interviewed Ezekiel Emanuel for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and I was struck by Emanuel’s efforts to learn and engage with something new each year. He has recently learned how to make his own jam and chocolate and in the interview talked about the insights and unexpected things that he has gained by trying something completely new. He doesn’t always stick with everything he learns and tries, but by applying himself in a lot of different areas, he picks up new perspectives, meets new people, and gains a new appreciation for something that was foreign to him in the past.

 

The lessons from Wright and Emanuel are things we should keep in mind and try to build into our own lives. When we only have a vague understanding or idea of how the world works, we are going to move through it making assumptions that are not warranted. We will act in ways that seem intuitively obvious for us, but our way of moving through the world may be as foolish as asking the French why they haven’t had an air tanker drop water on Notre-Dame. Ignorance can be quite costly in our own lives and in the negative externalities that we push onto the rest of the world, and as we become more responsible with relationships, families, and businesses that count on us, ignorance can be quite costly for the rest of society. Becoming aware of areas where we have no expertise and no training is important so that we can identify where we might have these knee-jerk reactions that won’t help anyone. Awareness of our ignorance can help us choose what we want to focus on, what we want to learn about, and what would help us become a better person for our society.

 

On the opposite side of the coin, as we become more expert in a given area, we will be able to better sense what is happening around us and make choices and decisions that we can’t explain but that work properly. It is something we should strive toward, but all the while we should recognize where our expertise falls short and how bad assumptions could harm us and others.

Building Models and Examining the World and Our Thoughts

This morning listening to an episode of Conversations with Tyler, Russ Roberts, the guest on the show said something that really stood out to me, “I used to believe that…my models described the world, as opposed to gave me insight into the world.” We operate in a world where there is no way for us to ever have complete information. There is simply too much data, too much information, to much stuff going on all around us for our brains to perfectly absorb everything in a reasonable and coherent way.

 

You do not notice every blink, you could never possibly understand every chemical’s smell that makes up the complex aroma of your coffee, and you can’t hold every variable for that big business decision in your head at the same time. Instead, our brains filter out information that does not seem relevant and we key in on what appears to be the main factors that influence the world around us. We build models that sometimes seem like they describe the world with spectacular clarity, but are only a product of our brain and the limited space for information that we have. Our models do not reflect reality and they are not reality, but they can give us an insight into reality if we can build them well.

 

No matter what, we are going to operate on these models in our daily lives. We develop a sense of what works, what will bring us happiness, what will create well-being, and how we will find success. We pursue those things that fit in our model, toss those things that don’t fit in the model to the side, and somewhere along the line begin to believe that our model is reality and criticize everyone who has a model that doesn’t seem to jive with ours.

 

A more reasonable stance is to say that we have developed a model that gives us insight into some aspect of reality, but is open for adjustment, improvement, or could be scrapped altogether in favor of a new model if necessary. The only way to do this is to be an active participant in our lives and to work to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. The quote from Roberts on Cowen’s podcast aligns with the quote that I have from Colin Wright today. From Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be I have a quote reading, “It’s not enough to just smell the fragrances that drift our way every day. We have to take the time to pull those aromas apart, to figure out what components go into them, and compare and contrast them with others. We have to be awake and aware, not just alive. We have to be participatory in our own lives, and give our mental capacities a reason to keep operating and expanding, otherwise they will, quite understandably, if we’re using biological logic, begin to shut down to save energy.”

 

Deciphering the aromas is a metaphor for understanding how we are interacting with the world and how the world exists around us. If we retreat to safety and comfort by believing that our models are correct and perfect, then we fail to improve our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our mind atrophies, and the potential we have for making the world a better place is continually diminished. Simply believing something because it benefits us, makes us feel good, and is what people similar to us believe can drive us and the world into an inefficient place where we fail to do the most good for the most people. There is nothing wrong with that world, it is an option, but if we believe that human flourishing is worth striving for and if we believe that we can help improve the living standards for ourselves and the rest of humanity, then we must use and expand our cognitive capacity to better understand the universe to improve the world for ourselves and the rest of humanity. Your model is incomplete and gives you insight into one aspect of reality, but you must remember that it is not a perfect description of how the world should be, and you must work continuously to build a better model with better insight into the world.

Embrace Your Life

 Yesterday I listened to Tyler Cowen’s latest episode of his podcast Conversations With Tyler in which he interviewed Karl Ove Knausgard. In typical Tyler Cowen fashion, the interview went all over the place, with in-depth questions about Knausgard’s writing, influences, and thoughts on a variety of topics. Early in the interview Cowen asked Knausgard about writing and having children and how his writing has changed with kids. Knausgard talked about the ways in which having children has taken away some of the mysticism and rituals surrounding his writing and forced him to learn to write at any time in any situation.

 

So often in our lives we have things that we like to do and want to make sure we do, and we end up building our own rituals around those things. In my own writing, I wake up much earlier than what is really necessary, make coffee, turn on just a single light, and write by myself in my quite house while I drink my coffee. When I go to the gym I have my phone and my headphones and I listen to specific music (Mid 2000’s/2010’s LA rap) and I wear certain shoes. I know people who prep for big sports events (that they are watching not that they are competing in) by purchasing certain foods, wearing certain clothes, and doing certain activities to set up the atmosphere for the game. All of these rituals create a world around us that we enjoy and are comfortable within, but these worlds are in a sense our own withdrawn fantasy worlds, and we likely cannot keep them together for ever.

 

Knausgard explains to Cowen that his writing was ritualized in this way before he had children, but that once he had kids, his writing could no longer occupy a fantasy space. He had to learn to adjust to the world and adapt his writing to fit into his new life with kids. His lesson is that writing cannot only take place in certain ritualized settings or it will never be done at all, and that adjusting out of our ritualized space is not a bad thing.

 

In a quote from the episode he says, “I think the best advice I ever got —  to accept everything that happens. So if you have many children, it’s a good thing. If you don’t have children, it’s a good thing. You have to embrace it because that’s your life. That’s where you are, and writing should be connected to that —  or painting or whatever it is.” I really enjoy this quote because it shows that we cannot judge life to be good or bad based on our rituals, our experiences, and our predetermined ideas of what makes a life good, bad, valuable, or meaningful. We must accept what happens in our life and find the best way to move forward with what we have. Life packs our suitcase for us, and we must make do with the items packed for our journey. In this spirit, Knausgard explained that writing went from something he only did in certain contexts to something he had to learn to do whenever he had a moment available. It took the magic and mysticism away from the process of writing, and it freed him to write more frequently and consistently, allowing him to actually be a more prolific writer after children than before children.