The Heart of the Social Contract

A lot of my writing lately could be misread as me making excuses for people who have made poor decisions and failed to be good citizens. I have been writing about the homeless and those who face chronic evictions, arguing that their failure is in many ways a larger failure of society to provide a system that will maximize human well-being and provide a reasonable floor from which everyone can rise. I have been more critical of those who dismiss the homeless and chronically evicted as lazy or morally deviant than I have been critical of those who cannot maintain a job, housing, or the support of friends and family. The reason I have been so critical of those who have, rather than those who need, is because I think we focus too much on ourselves, our own wants and desires, and our own challenges. We don’t think about ourselves in relation  to a larger society, at least not in the United States we don’t do enough thinking of ourselves and our dependence on others.
In his 1993 book about homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow writes, “trying to put oneself in the place of the other lies at the heart of the social contract and of social life itself.” It is important that we think about others rather than only think about ourselves. If we only think about our own problems, if we only  think about what would make us look cool, and if we only strive for our own goals, then we will fail in our obligations of the social contract. We have to think about the other people who are in our community, what they need, what their problems are, and how all of us can be part of a solution. We also have to think about the negative externalities that our actions produce in the world. What Liebow writes in the quote above is that the heart of a democracy relies upon all of us coming together and thinking not just about ourselves, but about others and about society.
I’m not saying that individually we all need to be more charitable, altruistic, and to give more of our time and money. I’m saying that we need to think more about others, and as a collective need to invest in institutions that make it easier for us to uphold the social contract. I would argue that recently we have invested in institutions which focus us inward, away from the social contract. Social media asks us to say something about our own lives, streaming services all us to focus our entertainment on our own preferences at any minute, and our current work expectations drive us to long hours so that we can own bigger and better things. The institutions which push us to be more communal have fallen to the side, requiring greater commitments from those involved, and scaring away those who would otherwise look to be involved. As Liebow explains, we need to think about others to be socially responsible and address collective problems, and this requires a shift away from our individual focused mindsets.
Take the Outside View

Take the Outside View

Taking the outside view is a shorthand and colloquial way to say, think of the base rate of the reference class to which something belongs, and make judgements and predictions from that starting point. Take the outside view is advice from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow for anyone working on a group project, launching a start-up, or considering an investment with a particular company. It is easy to take the inside view, where everything seems predictable and success feels certain. However, it is often better for long-term success to take the outside view.

 

In his book, Kahneman writes, “people who have information about an individual case rarely feel the need to know the statistics of the class to which the case belongs.” He writes this after discussing a group project he worked on where he and others made an attempt to estimate the time necessary to complete the project and the obstacles and hurdles they should expect along the way. For everyone involved, the barriers and likelihood of being derailed and slowed down seemed minimal, but Kahneman asked the group what to expect based on the typical experience of similar projects. The outlook was much more grim when viewed from the outside perspective, and helped the group better anticipate challenges they could face and set more reasonable timelines and work processes.

 

Kahneman continues, “when forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.”

 

Taking the outside view helps us get beyond delusional optimism. It helps us make better expectations about how long a project will take, what rate of return we should expect, and what the risks really look like. It is like getting a medical second opinion, to ensure that your doctor isn’t missing anything and to ensure they are following the most up-to-date practices. Taking the outside view shifts our base rate, anchors us to a reality that is more reflective of the world we live in, and helps us prepare for challenges that we would otherwise overlook.
Overconfidence

Overconfidence

How much should you trust your intuitions? The answer to the question depends on your level of expertise with the area in which you have intuitions. If you cook with a certain pan on a stove every day, then you are probably pretty good with trusting your intuition for where the temperature should be set, how long the thing you are cooking will need, and where the hottest spots on the pan will be. If you are generally unfamiliar with cars, then you probably shouldn’t trust your intuition about whether or not a certain used car is the right car to purchase. In other words, you should trust your instincts in things you are deeply familiar with and in areas where you are an expert. In areas where you are not an expert and where you only have a handful of experiences, you should consider yourself to be overconfident if you think you have strong intuitions about the situation.

 

Daniel Kahneman demonstrates this with an example of a math problem in his book Thinking Fast and  Slow. Most of us don’t solve a lot of written math problems in our head on a daily basis. As a result, we shouldn’t trust the first intuitive answer that comes to mind when we see one. This is the case with the problem that Kahneman uses in his book. It is deliberately designed to have an intuitive easy answer that is incorrect. It helps us see how our overconfidence can feel justified, but still lead us astray.

 

Kahneman writes, “an observation that will be a recurrent theme of this book: many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.” Intuitions are easy. They come to mind quickly, and following them doesn’t take much conscious effort or thought. The problem, however, is that our intuitions can be wildly wrong. Sometimes they may help us reach an answer quickly, and if we are an expert they can even be life saving, but in many cases our intuitions can be problematic.  If we don’t ever think through our intuitions, we won’t actually realize how often we act on them, and how our overconfidence can lead to poor outcomes.

 

This doesn’t mean that we have to pull out a note pad and calculator every time we make a decision. Instead, it means we should pause momentarily to ask ourselves if our immediate intuition is justified. If we are driving down a freeway that we take every day, and our intuition says change lanes, we can pause for a beat and consider that we drive this way every day, and know that one lane or the other generally slows down a lot and that we will be better off in a different lane. If we have an intuition instead about a complex public policy, we can take a minute to consider whether we truly know anything about the public policy area, and whether we should be more critical of our intuitions. Jumping to conclusions in public policy based solely on intuition can be dangerous. It doesn’t take too much effort or time to think about whether our intuition can be trusted or whether we are overconfident, but it can have a big impact for how we relate to the world and whether we trust the voice in our own head, or the voice of experts.

Think About Your Measuring Sticks

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie includes the short story Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned. The story is told from the perspective of a father, in roughly the 1920s/1930s, reflecting back on his day while standing at his sleeping son’s bedside. The father thinks about the times he criticized his son during the day, and how his son nevertheless ran into the father’s study at night to give him a hug good night. The line from the story which really stood out to me reads, “I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.”

 

The father realizes that he was treating his small child as if he were a full grown man behaving poorly. He was punishing his son for simply being a boy with the interests, the wonders, and the carefree spirit of a kid. It is a great story for any parent who is frustrated that their children don’t behave and act as perfectly as they want, and it is a great story for any of us who find ourselves criticizing the people in our lives.

 

I don’t have kids, so I won’t analyze the story and the quote that stood out to me from the perspective of a parent, but I am married and I do interact with plenty of other people who I know don’t share the same goals, the same genes, and the same history that I do. I find it easy to look at the world and find fault, especially when I see someone I can criticize for not having some virtue that I think that I possess. It is easy to take the yardstick that I measure myself with, and use it to judge others. However, when I do this, I am just like the father, using his measuring stick for evaluating his personal life, and applying that same standard to his small son.

 

Before we begin to measure others with our own yardstick, we should think about the yardsticks we use to measure our own lives. We often default to monetary yardsticks to judge the success of others, a habit that doesn’t accurately capture the value of a human being. People who are in great shape may apply a different yardstick to people, judging others for not being physically fit, without really considering the factors which may limit another person’s ability to get to the gym or buy lots of fruits and veggies. Similarly, parents might look down on people who don’t have kids, people who read a lot might look down on non-readers, and people who drive a Tesla might look down on people who drive trucks. In each instance, someone is taking a value of theirs, assigning it a certain weight, and then judging others using the measuring stick that they have built for their personal life.

 

The story about the father and his son shows us how useless this practice is, and hints at how harmful it can be. The father’s criticism is pushing his son down a path toward resentment, and the father recognizes there is still time for him to reverse the trend and recognizes that he can develop a real relationship with his child. Similarly, applying your own measurement to others is unfair because you do not know what history has shaped the person you are criticizing for not measuring up to your standards. You are not considering the environmental factors that create barriers in their lives to being the perfect person you criticize them for failing to be. People at different stages of their lives with different experiences and backgrounds may hold different values than you do, and that undoubtedly leads them to have different measuring sticks for their own lives. Additionally, it is not the responsibility of anyone else to live up to the measuring stick of your personal life. It is instead your responsibility to live in community with others, and to develop relationships to help others become the best version of themselves, meeting them where they are, understanding who they are, and helping them achieve a meaningful version of success that fits who they are and what society needs. The measuring sticks we need are not the ones we develop on our own, but are those which help us cooperate in society to encourage flourishing for all.

All Options Policy

What I really liked about Colin Wright’s book Some Thoughts About Relationships is that he focused on more than just romantic relationships. Wright examines how humans interact with each other within all types of relationships from romantic relationships with an intimate partner, to business relationships, to cordial but surface level relationships with the mail man. With so many possible relationships out there, Wright developed a framework for thinking about the multitude of ways that humans can relate to each other. He calls it the “All Options Policy”.

 

About the policy, he writes, “The key to understanding this policy is accepting that there’s no single moral, upstanding, golden model when it comes to relationships. There are as many valid relationship types as there are people, and it’s up to each of us to figure out what unique, specific shape ours will take.”

 

I really like this policy and wish we did more to apply this policy to our relationships and to build similar policies across our lives. I grew up watching too much TV, and I developed certain expectations about life, work, and relationships. These expectations were narrow in scope because they were based on what I saw on TV and were unrealistic because they were less about me and more about a performance for someone else. The way I grew up assumed there was a right way to act, behave, relate to others, and generally live. My mindset was the opposite of the “All Options Policy.” What’s more, this worldview was formed by scripted 30 minute tv segments, where reality, nuance, and true emotions were replaced by spectacle and overblown emotional reactions.

 

When we fail to recognize the variety in human life and experience we begin to force people into set boxes. We make assumptions and we try to live within a narrow range. Expanding that scope the way that Wright does with the All Options Policy allows for more creative and authentic human experience. We all have unique views and perspectives of the world, and we should expect that we will all have the capacity for developing our own ways of relating to the world and to other people. When we allow this to be the case, we can think deeply about what we want, expect, and need from our relationships with others, think about what other people want, need, and expect from us, and find a way to develop relationships with the people in (or potentially in) our lives. If we try to force relationships to be something that we think society, TV shows, or other people want our relationships to be, then we will never experience the rich complexity and individuality of human existence that the All Options Policy reflects.

Inconsiderate

Author Colin Wright starts his book, Considerations with the following paragraph:

 

“Few of us take the time to consider.
     It’s not that we’re ‘inconsiderate’ in the sense that we’re rude or brash or one of the other myriad associations we’ve tacked on to the word over the years, but we are often ‘inconsiderate’ in the sense that we act while seeing the world from only one standpoint: our own.”

 

I love the introduction to Wright’s book because it defines his personal philosophy and reminds me of the importance of having multiple perspectives in life.  when we think of living a life with only a single perspective as living an inconsiderate life, we are opened up to how limited our lives can be.  Wright’s quote helps me understand the importance of learning how others think about and view the world and events that occur.

 

What I find truly unique about Wright’s idea is the combination of actions and considerations. When we sit on our own to read, write, or ponder the world, we can be quite good at working through other people’s perspectives, but it is difficult to take those considerations and apply them to ourselves and our lives in a meaningful way.  It is not difficult to think of others when you are comfortable and have a philosophical book in your hands, but when we are stressed, challenged to do something beyond our comfort zone, or forced to interact with people in new situations, being able to see and perceive beyond our own viewpoint is difficult.

 

In politics, outside of our own individual perspective or the perspective of the politicians we trust and vote for, it is hard to envision anything that would be good for yourself, the country, and all others. We fall into a zone where we believe that a single perspective is the best or only option, and fail to try and see the world through the eyes of others.  I think one of the big challenges in our political system is that we have 300 million perspectives on government, but we try to only acknowledge the one that we believe serves us best.

 

I believe that Wright would agree with me and say that it is important to tie our actions with considerations of multiple perspectives, but I think he would also say that being able to see various perspectives during times of reflection is important.  Reading books that challenge your perspective, thinking about others from their point of view, and acknowledging that not every thinks like you is a big step toward laying a foundation that can support considerate actions.