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Before we had evolutionary psychology, ‘homo hypocritus‘, the subconscious and the modular mind people were still keenly observing human behaviour. Some were extremely insightful in noting our foibles, lies, hypocrisies and true motivations even if they couldn’t develop a unifying theory by which to explain them.

One of the wisest observers of human behaviour was the French writer La Rochefoucauld. If you haven’t yet read his maxims, you are in for a real treat. Below are some of the most cynical and enduring observations.

  • What we term virtues are often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune or our own industry manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste.
  • Hypocrisy is an homage that vice pays to virtue.
  • Nobody deserves to be praised for goodness unless he is strong enough to be bad, for any other goodness is usually merely inertia or lack of will-power.
  • There is great skill in knowing how to conceal one’s skill.
  • We always like those who admire us; we do not always like those whom we admire.
  • How can we expect others to keep our secrets if we cannot keep them ourselves?
  • We are eager to believe that others are flawed because we are eager to believe in what we wish for.
  • We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.
  • We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves we have no great ones.
  • Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding.
  • Nothing prevents us being natural so much as the desire to appear so.
  • In friendship and in love, one is often happier because of what one does not know than what one knows.
  • Hardly any man is clever enough to know all the evil he does.
  • In all professions we affect a part and an appearance to seem what we wish to be. Thus the world is merely composed of actors.
  • In the human heart there is a perpetual generation of passions, such that the ruin of one is almost always the foundation of another.
  • We should not be upset that others hide the truth from us, when we hide it so often from ourselves.
  • We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.
  • Philosophy triumphs easily over past and future evils; but present evils triumph over it. (A nod to construal level theory.)
  • Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.
  • The evil that we do does not attract to us so much persecution and hatred as our good qualities.
  • If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.
  • Self-interest speaks all sorts of tongues and plays all sorts of characters, even that of disinterestedness.
  • To succeed in the world we do everything we can to appear successful already.
  • Sincerity is an openness of heart; we find it in very few people; what we usually see is only an artful dissimulation to win the confidence of others.
  • If we judge love by the majority of its results, it resembles hatred more than friendship.
  • The love of justice is simply in the majority of men the fear of suffering injustice.
  • Friendship is only a reciprocal conciliation of interests, and an exchange of good offices; it is a species of commerce out of which self-love always expects to gain something.
  • It is more disgraceful to distrust than to be deceived by our friends.
  • Everyone complains about his memory, and no one complains about his judgment.
  • In the adversity of our best friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing.
  • Nothing is given so profusely as advice.
  • The truest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others.
  • When not prompted by vanity, we say little.
  • Usually we only praise to be praised.
  • The refusal of praise is only the wish to be praised twice.
  • The art of using moderate abilities to advantage wins praise, and often acquires more reputation than actual brilliancy.
  • The desire to appear clever often prevents one from being so.

Below is a scene from the movie Schindler’s List. It is one of the most haunting exchanges I have ever seen on the screen.

We all find ourselves in the same circumstance as Schindler: confronting unending opportunities to save lives at low cost. Indeed it is easier for us to save lives than it was for Schindler. None of us faces the risk of arrest and execution by the SS.

We may not weep for those we fail to save because we never see them, but they are just as real.


Schindler and Emilie emerge from his quarters, each carrying a small suitcase. In the dark, some distance away from his
Mercedes, stand all twelve hundred workers. As Schindler and his
wife cross the courtyard to the car, Stern and Levartov approach.
The rabbi hands him some papers.

We’ve written a letter trying to explain
things. In case you’re captured. Every
workers has signed it.

Schindler sees a list of signatures beginning below the
typewritten text and continuing for several pages. He pockets
it, this new list of names.

Thank you.

Stern steps forward and places a ring in Schindler’s hand. It’s
a gold band, like a wedding ring. Schindler notices an
inscription inside it.

It’s Hebrew. It says, ‘Whoever saves
one life, saves the world.’

Schindler slips the ring onto a finger, admires it a moment, nods
his thanks, then seems to withdraw.

(to himself)
I could’ve got more out …

Stern isn’t sure he heard right. Schindler steps away from him,
from his wife, from the car, from the workers.

(to himself)
I could’ve got more … if I’d just … I don’t
know, if I’d just … I could’ve got more…

Oskar, there are twelve hundred people who
are alive because of you. Look at them.

He can’t.

If I’d made more money …I threw away
so much money, you have no idea.
If I’d just …

There will be generations because of
what you did.

I didn’t do enough.

You did so much.

Schindler starts to lose it, the tears coming. Stern, too. The
look on Schindler’s face as his eyes sweep across the faces of
the workers is one of apology, begging them to forgive him for
not doing more.

This car. Goeth would’ve bought this car.
Why did I keep the car? Ten people,
right there, ten more I could’ve got.
(looking around)
This pin –

He rips the elaborate Hakenkreus, the swastika, from his lapel
and holds it out to Stern pathetically.
Two people. This is gold. Two more people.
He would’ve given me two for it. At least one.
He would’ve given me one. One more. One
more person. A person, Stern. For this.
One more. I could’ve gotten one more person
I didn’t.

He completely breaks down, weeping convulsively, the emotion he’s
been holding in for years spilling out, the guilt consuming him.

They killed so many people …
(Stern, weeping too,
embraces him)
They killed so many people …

From above, from a watchtower, Stern can be seen down below,
trying to comfort Schindler. Eventually, they separate, and
Schindler and Emilie climb into the Mercedes. It slowly pulls
out through the gates of the camp. And drives away.

For many years during my undergraduate degree I was living on a scholarship alone and so learned to be a very frugal person. As computers and mobile phones got cheaper, I would always take advantage of that to get cheaper rather than better models when upgrading. Last year for instance I bought a basic smartphone for $100 and a netbook for $250. This year on the sage advice of Luke Muehlhauser I changed my approach and splurged on a MacBook and higher end Android phone. Having experienced both I realised that buying the cheap electronics was a false economy and that if I had thought about the decision properly I would have worked that out much earlier.

The reason is simple.

A high quality laptop cost me $1100 while a comparable low quality one would have cost me $500. I use my laptop an average of about 2 hours a day, and expect it to last around two years. Over its lifetime then I should expect to use it about 1400 hours. A high end laptop then costs $0.42 an hour over a low end one. I estimate that the MacBook’s design and reliability boost my productivity by at least 10%. Do I value a 10% productivity boost at $0.42 an hour? Given my wages and the importance I place on getting things done – definitely. And then there is the pleasure and serenity I get from using a well designed product on top of that.

Likewise, a good phone cost $200 more and I use my phone about half an hour a day and also expect it to last for two years so it comes to about 55c extra each hour of use. While I don’t use the phone as much, it is particularly valuable to be able to do what you need to do on your mobile quickly, for example when you are trying to find an event, some piece of information or a person you a meeting. The faster processor and better software on the expensive phone allow me to perform most tasks almost twice as quickly as on the cheap phone. This is certainly worth the cost.

My instinct without doing the numbers was that ‘to be frugal is a virtue’, but in order to save my money I was inadvertently a spendthrift with my time. In future I will divide the price of durable items like laptops into hourly costs as I have done above in order to make it easier to work out the best decision.

There are four possible effects a habit can have on someone’s preferences that I would like to distinguish. For convenience I have labelled them appreciation, satisfaction, dependency and addiction. For my purposes, appreciation is where you gradually achieve a higher level of welfare doing something the more that you do it. Likely examples would be meditation or watching a lengthy TV series. Satisfaction is where an activity leaves you sated, and therefore better off even if you stop doing it. Pleasant investments in yourself, such as studying something you enjoy, could be an example of this. Dependency is where the gain from doing a fixed amount of something delivers a lower welfare boost over time, with the (net) benefit possibly falling to zero or going negative. Most drugs show some level of dependency. Finally, addiction is when the more you do something, the worse off you will be if you stop doing it. A lot of drugs also have this effect, as do other things you get ‘used to,’ like exercising or having money to spend. These are all shown on the figure below. Many habits exhibit two of these effects or affect different people in different ways.

I have found this framework to be helpful in clarifying my thinking about which habits I should and should not take up.

We should be enthusiastic to accumulate habits that are characterised by appreciation and satisfaction. The stronger the effect the better. Dependency is undesirable, but you can still be better off from the habit if the effect isn’t too strong. Intense dependency is no good because eventually you will end up gaining nothing or losing from the habit. Addiction is not a problem so long as you will always want and be able to continue with the habit. If you will eventually stop, due to dependency, cost or unavailability, addiction will hurt you.

Appreciation and satisfaction combined is the ideal because you win out whether you continue the habit or not.

Addiction on top of serious dependency is the worst case because you will eventually be worse off whether you continue or not. These are the most problematic habits.

Appreciation and addiction together is fine, so long as you don’t expect to have to give up the habit for some reason. If you will, it will be a judgement call as to the initial gain and expected loss later on.

Satisfaction and dependency isn’t perfect but you can’t lose out overall. Even if dependency means you no longer gain from continuing the activity, you will continue to gain for having done it in the past.

The matrix below puts the above into a colourful tabular format.

Appreciation Satisfaction Dependency Addiction
Appreciation Good
Satisfaction Ideal Good
Dependency Impossible Can’t lose Ambiguous
Addiction Ambiguous Impossible Ambiguous but risky Ambiguous

The hard challenge is knowing which habits have which effects and with what intensity, but this framework at least allows you to ask the right questions and know what to do when you get the answers. It also makes it easy to understand and categorise the claims other people make about their habits.

For instance, someone who thinks it is worth ‘getting into’ fine food might claim that fine food is about appreciation. Someone like me who is skeptical of fine food, might think it is actually about dependency and/or addiction. I have in fact been going out of my way to buy cheap clothes, food, wine and beer lately in order to see if any dependency I currently have gradually disappears. If so I will be able to save money buying cheap goods for the rest of my life and be no worse off. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What got me thinking about all this was cleaning up my house on the weekend. I am skeptical of cleaning, beyond that required to stay organised and avoid disease, for the same reason most people are nervous about drug habits. People differ enormously in how much cleanliness they expect. When someone catches the ‘cleanliness bug’, I doubt they are left any better off than someone with low expectations. They could easily be worse off if they have to incur the cost of cleaning just to maintain their original level of well-being. That is to say, I think cleaning exhibits strong dependency and addiction. Amirite?

Ever had a long term goal you wanted to achieve, like publishing a paper, getting fit or maintaining a blog, that you always put off and never actually got done? You and me both!

I’m not sure whether it’s because I have more ambitious goals than others or just less discipline, but I only rarely feel I’m using my spare time as well as I could. I spend too much time on easy things like reading and talking and too little doing substantive research.

Why is this akrasia such a common experience? If you’ll permit me some evolutionary ‘just-so story’ telling, and I know you will, my guess is that hunter-gatherers did not have to deal with many far off goals that required the determination to stick with unrewarding, difficult or tedious tasks. Hunting, gathering and socialising all offered pretty immediate payoffs so humans are not programmed to do the things the modern world requires of us. As a result discipline – who has it and how to achieve it – is a huge concern through farmer and industrial culture.

Whatever the cause, I think I have found a partial cure. For the last month I’ve been using the website Beeminder to set myself goals and stay on track to meet them. I signed up on the recommendation of two close friends who said it had dramatically enhanced their lives and it has had a similar impact for me.

The strategy of Beeminder is to remove procrastination as an option. Beeminder takes whatever long term goal you are aspring towards and sets out a linear trajectory until it is reached. If you ever fall below that trajectory you have failed at your goal. As a result you regularly face days when you must make some progress towards your goal, or lose. If you do extra today, then you build up a buffer that takes the pressure off tomorrow. The system does rely on you being honest about what you have done, though you could give your account to a friend and let them enter the data for you. It’s very satisfying to see your graph grow as you inch towards your goal, and once you have made some progress, it feels tragic to let your graph get frozen and have to start from scratch.

The first time you attempt a task there is no penalty for failure – apart from whatever disappointment and shame you happen to feel – but if you want to reattempt it Beeminder prompts you to put some money on the line. That money is taken from you if you fail and choose to attempt again. The financial penalty grows three-fold for each subsequent attempt, so you can pretty quickly end up with a lot of cash on the line, if you weren’t otherwise sufficiently motivated. These penalties are how the Beeminder folks hope to make money.

I now approach my evenings and weekends in a much more structured way. On Saturday morning I knew for example, that I had to work-out twice, write two blog posts and get at least three unreplied emails out of my backlog before the weekend was over. Rather than drift through until the early afternoon, as I often used to do, I mentally set out a schedule that allowed me to achieve all of those things. When I’m not working on Beeminder tasks I get to enjoy true ‘down-time’ and the fact that I have ‘things to get done’ means that I treasure and use that time much more effectively than I otherwise would. The fact that I have satisfied my pre-defined targets also means I don’t feel guilty when I do relax.

Some people who hear about Beeminder are nervous about the apparent loss of control over their lives. While it is true that the ‘momentary you’ loses some control, it is only giving up control to your ‘past self’. You can always change your goals with a week’s notice, so you are only ever a slave to a very recent past ‘you’. And while it can be a pain to have to complete a task on a particular day, once you notice that, you will naturally work up a buffer so you can always take the day off if something urgent does come up.

Other people feel that Beeminder will crowd-out their ‘true’ discipline, which is what they should be relying on. If you care about outcomes the proof will be in the pudding; for now at least this tool has enhanced my apparent discipline. The immediacy Beeminder creates does mean I need less willpower to motivate myself to do some things, but I see that as a postive rather than a negative. Drawing on willpower is exhausting.

Others value carefree spontaneity over the kind of focus Beeminder is designed to foster. Certainly a Beeminder task mandating that you ‘relax and enjoy the moment’ would have a touch of irony – though if I ever do a PhD I think I’ll need one. If you are comfortable with how much you satisfy your second-order desires or your first-order and second-order desires coincide – lucky you – then feel free to ignore this post.

But for the rest of us there’s now Beeminder.

ImageThere is a principle in finance that obvious and guaranteed ways to make a lot of money, so called ‘arbitrages’, should not exist. It has a simple rationale. If market prices made it possible to trade assets around and in the process make a guaranteed profit, people would do it, in so doing shifting some prices up and others down. They would only stop making these trades once the prices had adjusted and the opportunity to make money had disappeared. While opportunities to make ‘free money’ appear all the time, they are quickly noticed and the behaviour of traders eliminates them. The logic of selfishness and competition mean the only remaining ways to make big money should involve risk taking, luck and hard work. This is the ‘no arbitrage‘ principle.

Should a similar principle exist for selfless as well as selfish finance? When a guaranteed opportunity to do a lot of good for the world appears, philanthropists should notice and pounce on it, and only stop shifting resources into that activity once the opportunity has been exhausted. This wouldn’t work as quickly as arbitrage on financial markets of course. Rather it would look more like entrepreneurs searching for and exploiting opportunities to open new and profitable businesses. Still, in general competition to do good should make it challenging for an altruistic start-up or budding young philanthropist to beat existing charities at their own game.

There is a very important difference though. Most investors are looking to make money and to them a dollar is a dollar, whatever business activity it comes from. Competition between investors makes opportunities to get those dollars hard to find. The same is not true of altruists, who have very diverse preferences about who is most deserving of help and how we should help them; a ‘util’ from one charitable activity is not the same as a ‘util’ from another. This suggests that unlike in finance, we may able to find ‘altruistic arbitrages’,  that is to say ‘opportunities to do a lot of good for the world that others have left unexploited.’

The rule is simple: target groups you care about that other people mostly don’t, and take advantage of strategies other people are biased against using.  The rule  is the root of a lot of advice offered to thoughtful givers and consequentialist-oriented folks. An obvious example of the rule is that you shouldn’t look to help poor people in rich countries. There are already a lot of government and private dollars chasing opportunities to assist them, so the low hanging fruit has all been used up and then some. The better value opportunities are going to be in poor, unromantic places you have never heard of, where fewer competing philanthropist dollars are directed. Similarly, you should think about taking high risk-high return strategies. Most do-gooders are searching for guaranteed and respectable opportunities to do a bit of good, rather than peculiar long-shot opportunities to do a lot of good. If you only care about the ‘expected‘ return to your charity, then you can do more by taking advantage of the quirky, improbable bets neglected by others.

Who do I personally care about more than others? For me the main candidates are animals, especially wild ones, and people who don’t yet exist and may never exist – interest groups that go largely ignored by the majority of humanity. What are the risky strategies I can employ to help these groups? Working on future technologies most people think are farcical naturally jumps to mind but I’m sure there are others and would love to hear them.

This principle is the main reason I am skeptical of mainstream political activism as a way to improve the world. If you are part of a significant worldwide movement, it’s unlikely that you’re working in a neglected area and exploiting how your altruistic preferences are distinct from those of others.

What other conclusions can we draw thinking about philanthropy in this way?

For the last two years whenever I have felt charitable, rather than directly give away the money – to VillageReach incidentlaly – I have offered to match donations made by my Facebook friends 1:1. Initially I could only raise a few hundred dollars in matching donations, but most recently attracted almost $2000 with little effort. I always kept the maximum amount I was willing to match above what I expected would be forthcoming, so that matchers were apparently inducing me to donate more. Is all this a good thing to do?

The obvious answer is yes. By matching donations I am inducing others to donate more than they otherwise would. As long as I can find enough people to match that I don’t donate much less than I otherwise would, I’m increasing the additional effect of my donation. This is probably right. That said, it’s likely that many of those other folk were planning to give some money away anyway and reduced their other donations in order to match mine. For this reason I don’t believe that I was really causing two dollars to be donated for each dollar that I gave. The additional impact was probably quite a bit less.

An outside possibility is that donation matching not only doesn’t induce extra donations but rather ‘crowds them out’. This would be the effect if the people who matched my donation reduced their other donations by more than one dollar for each dollar they matched for me. Why would that happen? It could if they were targetting a certain amount of charitable donations each year and counted each dollar they matched for me as more than one dollar given, because the considered themselves partially ‘responsible’ for my donation as well. Having given $X, they feel like they have given $2X and cut back on $2X donations in the rest of their life. Thinking through human psychology I doubt this happens much, but it’s possible.

Even if it were true though, I would still use matching donations. The charity that I was donating to, VillageReach, can probably avert an infant death through vaccinations for around $500. That is far more effective than most other chartiable organisations [1]. While the people matching my donations are a clever and discriminating lot, my guess is that any donations I might have ‘crowded out’ would still have gone to less effective causes. It was worth matching just to better direct the funds.

Furthermore, inducing someone to give to VillageReach once, and making them aware of how effective their interventions are, will probably tempt them to give more in future both out of habit and a desire for consistency in their behaviour.

Further still, I was able to splash our giving all over our Facebook profiles, advertising what we were doing to my and their friends. While normally advertising one’s generosity in this way would be gauche, I have a good excuse (I am looking for matching donations!) and so do they (I did it not them, and it’s good to raise awareness!) which makes it socially acceptable. This raises the benefits of giving to us donors, probably tempting us to give more than we would otherwise.

This scheme also changes and raises the standards of what is admirable do-goodery to everyone who happens to be watching: not signing a petition or watching a YouTube clip, but rather giving hundreds or thousands of dollars to an organisation you have properly researched. Maybe this will improve their behaviour too.

The only mystery to me is why matching donations on social networking sites are not more popular. I hope I am just ahead of the rush.

[1] Though not as effective as existential risk reduction I now think. I would say the key downside of using matching donations is that it tempted me to give to familiar ‘African health program’ interventions that would attract matching donations, rather than more unusual but probably more effective animal welfare or existential risk charities.

One of the big challenges in life is finding friends and colleagues who support and bring out the best in you. This is especially the case when your goals are unusual and you are less likely to be assisted by the people you already know. I expect that the lack of social networks and esteem are important reasons why few people invest many of their resources into effectively improving the world, even when convinced on a philosophical level that it is the right thing to do. The supportive social networks are so much larger for ineffective forms of altruism that it is no surprise many more people are drawn to them.

For that reason I am very happy to see the growth of the 80,000 Hours organisation, which is a part of the Centre for Effective Altruism. They are collecting people who are researching and writing about how to most effectively make a difference, encouraging folk to commit to doing good, and then providing support for them the meet their giving goals. Their mission statement is to “help you be an effective altruist by providing a supporting community of dedicated members who share their insights and experience.”

Similarly, whatever their imperfections, it is very valuable to have the Less Wrong community and Singularity Institute as magnets for people who are concerned with existential risk, clear thinking and the future, who might otherwise give up from the lack of anyone to talk and work with.

If you haven’t thought much about how you can have a big positive impact on the world, watch the short video below and then the longer presentation underneath and consider taking the 80,000 Hours pledge. By giving a bit of thought to how you can best contribute you can do a lot more good for others at no extra cost to the rest of your life.

I have spent almost all of my life in formal education. One of the most stressful things about high school and university, at least for a diligent (indeed perhaps, obsessive) student like me, is the open-ended nature of study. No matter how much time I dedicated I could always learn more and get better results. My work was never done and for much of the year this left me feeling guilty and distracted whenever I wasn’t studying.

This is a a very common experience among many people I know, especially the academically successful ones. It is doubly an issue for postgraduates, who on top of everything get little meaningful feedback on how they are performing and whether they are doing enough. I know people who are avoiding doing PhDs specifically because they dread never being able to walk away.

As my friends and I make the transition from study to work, the most common reaction is that of relief. Work may be challenging at times, but for most it is a contained part of life. I certainly don’t feel bad that I lack the discipline to go into the office every weekend.

Study guilt may be gone for now, but I still feel a lot of guilt when it comes to trying to be a good person. If I were to life consistently with my values, I would forgo all Earthly pleasures – except those required to stay healthy and productive – and dedicate myself to existential risk reduction. The expected return to putting effort into reducing existential risk is very high, I would never run out of very important things to do, and I would never get feedback on whether what I was doing was enough or even making any difference. Knowing this is a serious drag: every dollar I spend on myself is a dollar not given to savings future generations from annihilation.

At the moment, guilt is necessary to motivate me to do good things, but however much it motivates me to do, it will still taint the rest of my life. I am not sure what to do about this, but I have a few options I’m looking into.

One option is to set a maximum target amount of effort to put into study or do-goodery and then commit myself to not doing more. I would convince myself that that is a target I should be happy with and not feel any need to exceed. While this may be successful at preventing me from working too hard and burning out, I’m not sure that it would necessarily help me focus properly when doing other things.

Another better option would be to cultivate the ability to focus and control my state of mind hour to hour. Friends have suggested to me that learning to experience flow or meditating regularly help with this.

Another idea would be to switch from being motivated primarily by guilt and horror at bad things that could happen, to hope for a better future or something else more pleasant. I am not clear how to do this but presumably there is advice out there.

A final possibility is to irrevocably commit myself to doing good, for instance with a contract obliging me to give away some share of my future income to a given cause. I would then be free to cultivate much less concern for existential risk (or the problems of the world in general) as I will no longer need to feel guilty for motivation.

Being able to switch off and enjoy life is important. I would like to achieve a lot for the world, but preferably without being a martyr. I am unlikely to be able to keep up a lifestyle I don’t enjoy in the long run. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts if you’re in the same situation, or better yet, if you’ve been here before and can suggest what has worked for you.

I wrote this for the Alternative Law Journal some time ago:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society. Why is the audience intended to admire the Na’vi’s complete self-satisfaction and unwillingness to deal with humans despite the fact that it is Na’vi isolationism and idealism as much as human avarice which drive the two groups into conflict?

Thinking about it I realised it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds. But if we were to encounter such uncompromising characters in our families or offices they would strike us as unreasonable lunatics. I am reminded of what Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, was reported to have thought we would call an archetypical, vengeance-fuelled vigilante like Batman in the real world: ‘in short, a nutcase’.

Why is it that rather than celebrate the values of conflict resolution, tolerance and deal-making, which make our advanced societies function so effectively, our favourite stories continue to be about zero-sum conflicts that are impossible to resolve peaceably? From afar, the kind of conflict found in Avatar seems noble. We can easily imagine one side to be all good and the other all bad. There is no need to dwell on the suffering of those extras who die in battle or the problems that go unsolved back on Earth for want of ‘unobtainium’. A quick cut to the next scene is always just seconds away! But in real life, conflict is painful and messy and something we work hard to avoid.

In fact we are so used to finding compromises in our everyday lives that to make his conflict story hang together, writer and director James Cameron is forced to pile absurdity upon absurdity: an intelligent species totally disinterested in trade with aliens and the magical technology they bring; a business that sees fighting interstellar war as a cheaper way to access ‘unobtainium’ than a peace treaty; a race of people willing to reveal all their secrets to conspicuous spies, but unwilling to negotiate or make concessions to humans even in the face of a catastrophic defeat. The crazy plot twists used to make compromise impossible result in a world unlike anything on Earth and as a result the movie is unable to teach us anything useful about how we ought to live.

Finally, we are led to a deus ex machina moment in which the megafauna of Pandora rise up to repel the human colonisers. To my knowledge, a revolt of Gaia is beyond the powers of the hunter gatherer tribes today struggling to coexist with industrial society, so I’m not sure what they can hope to take away from Avatar. The apparent moral of Avatar, ‘fight hard if you’re in the right and Gaia will provide’, is one only someone very isolated from the real challenges of hunter gatherers could put forward. Why does popular fiction so often favour staunch idealism over the central wisdom embodied in modern political systems and their laws: ‘dealism’? We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

An Australian movie with a very similar plot to Avatar is The Castle, in which the Kerrigan family fights the compulsory acquisition of their home for the expansion of Melbourne Airport. Audiences were predictably united in their support for the charming Kerrigan family in their struggle against big business. In real life, I suspect the public would be strongly divided on the fairness of the acquisition, especially if sticking up for the Kerrigan family meant airport delays and fewer discount airlines. We would want to find a deal which left both the Kerrigans better off and allowed for a larger airport by offering them more and more compensation until they voluntarily moved.

Why split our values like this, some for our stories and others for our own lives? I suspect the answer lies in what we subconsciously want our taste in fiction to say about us. Celebrating the Na’vi allows us to signal how much we value loyalty and justice. Denigrating Melbourne Airport allows us to show our suspicion of greedy and powerful people. In real life, when defending our stated values requires that we make serious sacrifices whether or not we are likely to win, we sensibly value the opportunity to compromise. But when a fictional character will do all the fighting for you, why compromise on anything? Though popular fiction will never say it, we know the best fight is not that won by the righteous but the one nobody needed fight in the first place.

If there’s one thing an economist loves to spot, it is a trade-off. A trade-off puts us on familiar terrain and let’s us feel (not for the first time) that undergraduate microeconomics can make order out of every problem. Tom Sowell captured this attitude when he famously declared, “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” [1]

But of course not everything we do in life is traded off against something else. Many things we do are completely complementary with one another. For example, spending some time eating doesn’t conflict with my desire to get my work done. If I didn’t eat or drink at all I would pretty quickly find I wasn’t getting any work done at all! On the other hand long boozy lunches with friends every day could well conflict with my productivity. Between these two extremes there is some amount of effort dedicated to eating that doesn’t come at the expense of any other goal I have. This idea is represented in the figure below where the black line indicates the maximum amount of ‘other activities’ I get can get done for any amount of time spent meeting my body’s need for sustenance. We can label the amount of time on eating that come at no cost to other activities as point A.


We can do the same with a range of other activities that we might neglect for fear that we ‘don’t have time.’

Not doing any exercise is bad for life expectancy, general health and energy levels. Moderate exercise a few times a week is likely to ‘pay for itself’ by making your mind and body work more effectively and longer throughout the rest of your life, almost irrespective of what else you are doing. On the other hand lengthy marathon training wouldn’t improve your productivity in the rest of life sufficiently to come for free: you would have to give something else up, whether it’s other recreation, time with family and friends, or work accomplishments. But failing to do any exercise because you ‘don’t have time’ doesn’t make any sense. Initially exercise would give you more time than it used up!

Friends of mine who spend a few hours meditating a week say that it improves their focus enough through the rest of life and replaces sleep such that overall it is a free activity.

A notable candidate is investment in strong relationships with friends and family. For most people these relationships are necessary to feel satisfied and motivated in life and buffer us against difficulties we face.

Neglecting our physical, mental and social health may help us get more other things done temporarily, but is a lousy strategy in the long run.

Some actual figures for how much of these different activities do actually come at no cost would be very useful research in my opinion, though I expect they will vary quite a bit between people.

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“After more than a quarter century of debate, Yale faculty members are now barred from sexual relationships with undergraduates—not just their own students, but any Yale undergrads. The new policy, announced to faculty in November and incorporated into the updated faculty handbook in January, is “an idea whose time has come,” says Deputy Provost Charles Long, who has advocated the ban since 1983.

In his decades at Yale, Long has seen many faculty-student romances. Most turn out fine, he says, but others are destructive to students. “I think we have a responsibility to protect students from behavior that is damaging to them and to the objectives for their being here.”

Faculty-student liasons repugnant at Yale

Al Roth suggests this ban is because many find such relationships ‘repugnant’ while the Deputy Provost says it’s to prevent something which is destructive to  some and interferes with their objectives at Yale, presumably academic ones. How can we tell who is right? Well we can be pretty sure the Deputy Provost hasn’t got the right explanation. The number of activities which are destructive to some students and sometimes interfere with academic pursuits are numerous. Socialising and drinking in general would qualify and so would all relationships whether with faculty or other students. To my knowledge there is no call whatever to ban these things on the same basis. What’s more it is far from clear why undergrad-faculty relationships should on average reduce an undergrad’s success at university. Older and successful partners are more likely to help and motivate students to reach their level of education and also provide access to networks of intelligent people to help with their career.

Given this we have to turn to another explanation, and our general aversion to mixing relationships characterised by ‘dominance’ with those characterised by ‘sex’ as described by Steven Pinker, would have to be a good candidate.

Will Wilkinson has more.

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

All opinions expressed here are at most mine alone, and have nothing to do with any past, present, future or far future employers.

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