I believe that the is/ought problem has been solved, and that it is both meaningful and necessary to talk about what it means to life a good life. You can read an articulation of my personal values system if you would like. This values system treats moral uncertainty as a feature. It may seem like a letdown because it doesn’t give concrete answers, nor does it argue that ‘there is no meaningful answer’ to the question of what is good. My personal value system argues that a meaningful answer to the question “what is good?” definitely exists, but that determining the right course of action in any situation, with certainty, is computationally intractable.
I believe a just world exists in the same sense that a closed form solution to the three body problem exists: it doesn’t. We can only approximate it. I believe each person’s moral conscience contains an encoded heuristic, a model of the good – which is noisy, lossy, and in need of continuous training.
Diversity is a naturally instrumental value, precisely because no one model of the good can be totally accurate. Empathy is essential, because it’s a natural strategy for learning from models that are different form my own. I believe every agent navigating the world, from a paramecium to a multinational corporation – even a virus – is a lossy model of the Good. I believe the entire tree of life is a massive ensemble of these models of the good, these approximations of a better world.
I believe we have moral duty to attempt to perform these approximations of the good, because in the absence of this moral effort, the world will degrade into increased misery. Our ancestors strove to improve the world, driven by visions of the good. They succeeded in making great progress towards this goal. I think it’s critical that we don’t stop trying to make more progress. If we aren’t guided by trying to accomplish impossible goals, I believe we will fail to make the real progress that is possible.
Self Empowerment as Instrumental Value
And yet even though, in many cases, it is impossible for us to know what the right course of action is, it is often substantially easier to determine what the right course of action is, than it is to actually do the right thing.
We all know we should eat healthier, exercise more, and spend less time arguing with strangers on the internet. But why don’t we?
I think our failures to act on what we know is good is primarily because of computational limits – not just those of human hardware, but the theoretical limits on any system of hardware that uses models to compute likely futures, and to select course of action that advance the probability that certain desired futures will occur.
For a simple example here, I should be present and empathetic towards everyone in my life. But i only have so much time and energy. How can I balance these among all the different people I could be helping? And what about time for myself? If I don’t take time to relax, I’ll get burned out, I’ll be unable to help as much, and I might even make things worse by losing my temper with people I love. Computing the optimal balance there is likely impossible. But I still think it’s important to try. I think trying to my best to solve this unsolvable problem is both the definition of living a good life, and an explanation for why suffering and misery exist in the world: a just world is computationally intractable; we can only approximate it.
I think living a good life means trying to solve an online maximization problem: in each moment, which course of action can I take which maximizes overall goodness in the world?
Personal Development Goal
So my ability to do good in the world is constrained not merely by my capability to understand what is good, but also by the fact that I have limits and flaws. I get tired and stressed and burned out. I worry about things I can’t control. I sometimes make plans and don’t follow through with them.
I’m human. My goal is to turn myself into a machine.
The primary constraint on my ability to do good is that I often feel tired, or anxious, or stressed or angry. Feelings come from beliefs: if you feel good upon receiving a million dollars, this is obviously not an evolved response. That feeling must be because of your beliefs about what those dollars mean.
I want infinite emotional energy. To this end, I want to construct a system of beliefs that acts like a perpetual emotional energy machine. I want to develop a mindset and system of practices that cause my brain to continuously generate a positive emotional signal. I want this machine to rapidly inhibit negative emotional signals, while still reacting to the real threats they (sometimes) represent. I want this machine driving my body forward towards being more kind, more caring, more present, and more capable of dealing with the ever larger problems as I face as I grow and develop and become more capable. The more capable I have become in navigating the world, the more often people have come to me for help. It has been painful to accept that I cannot help everyone that I would like to. I want to help more.
Where tradeoffs exists, I wish to harness them mindfully – borrowing energy only where doing so is strictly necessary, and then giving myself time to recover whenever that’s necessary as well. I want to be hard enough on myself to avoid being lazy, but not so hard on myself that i feel burned out, stressed, and exhausted.
I understand that this goal is impossible. As I said above, I believe that if I’m not trying for impossible goals, I think I will fail to maximize my capability to add to the goodness in the world. Even though I can’t accomplish this goal, I believe I can approximate this machine ever more closely. The way the dopaminergenic reward system works, all I need to do is continually make progress towards this impossible goal, and I will feel good, which will enable me to do more good in the world.
I hope you’ll join me.