Theoretical Priorities

The moral, psychological, and cultural problems that most interest me are the problems that come into play near the top of the Maslow hierarchy.  The problems that persist, or develop, once material needs and even basic social needs have been well-addressed.  Or, in other words, “the problems of the people who have the least-pressing problems.”

You know what kind of thing I mean.  The amorphous aimlessness of modernity.  Existential confusion and existential despair.  Ennui.  Anomie.  The quiet longing for a secure identity.  The desperate scramble to fill time with distraction and amusement.  First World Problems, which arise from difficulties inherent in the attempt to self-actualize.

I spend a lot more time thinking about that stuff than I do about injustice, or material deprivation, or illness, or community-management issues.  I don’t insist that it be anyone else’s priority — and I’m certainly glad that there are lots of people trying to solve the devastating problems that exist because of failures further down the Maslow hierarchy — but it is my priority.

*****

Why?

Well, let’s be honest, it’s partly because First World Problems are my problems and the problems of many of the people I most care about.  I have been very fortunate; I am much more concerned about self-actualization than I am about meeting my material or social needs.  I am self-interested, to some extent, and with self-interest comes a certain myopia.  I find myself with lots of thoughts about the issues present in my own life, and I feel inclined to nurture them, rather than abandoning them so that I can hare off after different issues that are less-present in my personal field of vision.

Beyond that, though…

I have a strong sense that the Rawlsian and social-justice-y drive to focus intently on the Worst-Off Among Us, which has become something of an intellectual reflex these days (for understandable reasons), is liable to backfire.  Even very-well-off people have problems, and being human, they will spend most of their energy addressing those problems.  To some extent they can be guilted and bullied into doing otherwise through the power of moral suasion, but this goes only so far before it fails.  And, unless they’re guided along a better path to their own spiritual welfare, the well-off will try to deal with their problems in the same intuitively-appealing way they always have: amassing astounding hoards of wealth and power, and then blowing it all on massively-inefficient psychic-welfare gains with returns that quickly diminish to near-nothing.   This is not good news for anyone who would like to see those resources put to any kind of better use.  So long as you focus exclusively on lower-in-the-Maslow-hierarchy issues — so long as your answer to those seeking self-actualization is “you have no real problems, so man up” — you’re going to be battling the rich and powerful for control of their stuff.  The rich and powerful will win that fight, because they are rich and powerful.  Addressing their concerns efficaciously is likely to be very helpful even if your ultimate goals are strictly Rawlsian or social-justice-y.

Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of trying to take the long view.  I’m enough of a techno-optimist to think that, despite our species-wide continual careening towards catastrophe, we might actually manage to solve our material problems through the sheer awesomeness of our applied science.  When we do that, when we are all kings, the self-actualization problems are going to be what remains.  Our understanding of those problems, our ability to conquer ennui and anomie and all the rest, will be the difference between a paradise of human flourishing and a gilded cage of despair.  That’s worth some sustained theoretical attention.

(My hat goes off to the rationalist community’s Fun Theorists, who are already doing such work.  I’m not much interested in their preferred avenues of exploration — their vision of the likely future is, uh, a lot more singularitarian than mine — but they’re willing to look into improvements without getting sidetracked by lower-on-the-Maslow-hierarchy supremacy claims, which is rare, and I applaud it.)

*****

I say all this, basically, as a statement of intent and as a disclaimer.

My next couple of essays are going to talk about self-actualization problems: what they actually are, as I perceive them, and a couple of preliminary strategies for addressing them at different scales.

If you’re interested in telling me that my priorities are decadent and bad and wrong, that I’m not focusing on real problems…well, we can have that fight here instead, where it won’t derail the conversation.

And if you’re taking my theoretical focus as a signal that I don’t care about lower-on-the-Maslow-hierarchy problems, or that you shouldn’t care about such problems, be aware that you’re wrong.  They matter a lot, even if I personally would rather talk about something else.  We need to fix them to save the world.  Give to EA charities, kids.

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Theoretical Priorities

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