Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mathematics of Misery: What Human Behavior Teaches Us About the Value of Life

I request feedback on this. Please criticize and distribute.

The probability of your coming into existence was bogglingly small.

The ejaculation that led to your conception contained hundreds of millions of unique spermatozoa. You are the one in half a billion that made it to fertilization. And it was that particular ejaculation that resulted in conception – as opposed to the thousands of ejaculations your father experienced before and after your conception. Your parents met (literally or figuratively, if you’re the product of a sperm donor) and conceived you, instead of conceiving with other potential mates, or not conceiving at all. And this startling history applies to your parents as well – your grandparents – your great-grandparents – and on back to the Australopithecines and beyond – each one the winning sperm of hundreds of millions, the result of a particular ejaculation, a particular union, that could have not happened as easily as your nonexistent brothers and sisters failed to happen.

Are you lucky to be alive?

Most people seem to experience a mixture of terror and delight when contemplating their own unlikeliness in this way – terror at the prospect of never having come into existence, and delight in one’s specialness, one’s victory over the other potential beings. One might even feel pity for those who never got to exist.
The conventional wisdom is that we are all very lucky to be alive – that life is a benefit, a precious gift that has been given to us. This is an important belief. It is a belief that is necessary to justify creating a child – if the child is benefited by being born, then procreation, at least toward him, is morally innocent. Perhaps it is even morally required!

Of course, life isn’t so great for everyone. The world is so bad, in fact, that its badness is the most conclusive argument against the existence of a loving, all-powerful deity. But when antinatalists point out the serious harms that come to all living beings, such as hunger, loneliness, jealousy, pain, illness, fear, and death, we are often told that we are giving an incomplete picture of reality. Reproduction advocates, realizing that the moral innocence of reproduction rests on life having a positive value, advise us to look on the bright side. We are frequently invited to consider the good things about life, the sunsets and puppies and children’s smiles that allegedly blot out the bad and give life its high net positive value. And that’s the folks who are willing to engage the question at all: too often, the question of the value of life is not addressed because it is supposedly just so obvious that life is worth getting. (This is the position taken by Thomas Nagel and Bryan Caplan, among others.)

So is life a precious gift, or is it a costly burden? Are we impossibly lucky to be alive – or impossibly unlucky?

Let’s not argue the point. We can do better: we can measure.

Truncated Utility Functions and the Value of Life

“Utility” is an economic concept similar to happiness, but broader. It is the ultimate emotional evaluation of whether things are good or bad. The concept of utility does not rest on a purely hedonistic model of life; economics recognizes that utility may be gotten from a variety of transactions and experiences, springing from motives self-interested, altruistic, and everything in between.

Broadly speaking, utility is a function of “income” – again, very broadly defined. Income in this sense need not be monetary income in dollars, as from a job or investments, but may include items that are not even available directly on any market, such as affection from other humans and self-respect. I will address below the question of what real human utility functions are actually a function of. (I reserve the right to switch willy-nilly and with no warning between speaking of utility functions that are functions of monetary income and those that are functions of other things, depending upon context to clarify which I mean.)

As Gary Becker and Richard Posner note in the unpublished paper that is one of the primary subjects of this essay (“Suicide: An Economic Approach”), in studying how utility responds to changes in income, economists have primarily focused on middle-class individuals – people who own houses, earn money from investments, and buy fire, health, and automobile insurance. This has led to the conclusions of economics occasionally not being true observations of general human nature, as they often purport to be, but rather observations of middle-class human nature.

One of these suspect observations is that utility functions are concave. This is a typical representation of a concave utility function:

What this means is that a person gets a lot of utility from the first dollar he gets – even the first thousand or ten thousand dollars – but he doesn’t get nearly as much utility from the 40,000th dollar, and even less from the millionth dollar. (Modern American utility functions of income apparently top out at around $75,000 per year.) What this means is that, dollar for dollar, gains are less valuable to the average suburbanite than losses are painful. He would rather pay $1000 a year in car insurance (say) than take a one-in-ten chance at a $10,000 loss during that year in an accident. This phenomenon – that makes the insurance industry viable and makes utility functions concave – is called risk aversion.

Many people behave in ways that are not consistent with risk aversion. They make “bad” bets – bets where the expected payoff (probability of success times magnitude of win) is less than the cost of the bet. They take risks seemingly without regard for possible bad consequences. They appear focused on the present and immediate future, at the expense of the far future (they are “extreme future discounters”). Miserable people and poor people are particularly likely to fit these criteria.

Why are middle-class folks risk averse, but not miserable folks or poor folks?

Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier, in their paper “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State,” present a possible solution: irrationality and akrasia. The bad choices made by poor people are a result of their inability to forecast the future effects of their actions, combined with laziness. Welfare and other social programs, rather than making the poor better off, paradoxically make them worse off (say Caplan and Beaulier) because their irrational, akratic minds cannot handle the extra choices. (Note: this is my characterization of Beaulier and Caplan's conclusion; they use euphemistic terms at all times.)

Gary Becker and Richard Posner have a different solution: miserable and poor people don’t “properly” consider the future, because their lives are so painful that they are effectively suicidal. Poor people look around and rationally weigh the costs and benefits of different courses of action, but choose to gamble on long shots precisely because their current situations are not worth living in. They would just as soon die as remain in their current situations, and so gamble what little they have on the hope of a meaningful life.

Don’t just think gangs and lotteries and crime and crack. Think about people pursuing acting or singing careers, or going to law school or business school, or marrying in haste, or even, perhaps, having children. Such people bet everything – including their futures – on winning a particular gamble, even if it’s not a fair gamble and the likelihood of payoff doesn’t make up for the losses necessarily incurred pursuing the gamble.

The utility function pictured above has a lot of space beneath it and above the x axis, even at the origin. This reflects a judgment that even at zero income, a person takes great value from being alive.

This may or may not fit the facts.

The actual points at which actual human utility functions intersect the x axis may be far to the right of the y axis, as with this utility function for a person who only begins to get positive utility at income Id. For all incomes below Id, the person experiences negative utility – that is, he suffers.

This utility function is a model for the phenomenon that many people (myself included) do not seem to derive much utility at all from incomes (broadly conceived) much greater than zero.

Many people are so miserable that they do not want to enter the future at all. Their whole future projected life is worthless to them. In technical terms, their utility over all future time intervals, appropriately discounted, is less than zero. Also, their current utility (present circumstance) is zero or negative (otherwise they'd stick around a bit longer to pick up extra utility).

Suicide is one option for such people. But there are two other options, according to Becker & Posner (terminology is mine):
  • Take what you have and “bet” it on a chance at something that would make life worth living. If it fails, you can always kill yourself. (Gamble)
  • Since there is an element of uncertainty to the future, take what you have and use it to make the present livable so you can postpone suicide. Something to make life worth living might be just around the corner. If not, you can always kill yourself. (Palliate & Wait)

The utility function above for inefficient utility producers (like myself), where the utility function dips below the x axis, means that the person modeled must fear losing income below this point, because having income below Id means he will suffer.

But a would-be suicide need not suffer. He has an ace up his sleeve: all suffering is the same as death to him, for he can use death to escape any suffering. His utility function is effectively truncated. It looks like this:

Instead of dipping below the x axis, his utility function continues along the x axis all the way to the y axis (and beyond, if you allow for negative income). Now there is a portion of the utility function that is convex – the signature of risk preference, the opposite of risk aversion described above.

Any income below the critical level Id is worth nothing to the effectively suicidal person. This means that it will not make sense for him to expend any effort in securing income below this level. Like a depressed person who has lost the sense of the value of things, he is not motivated to get up in the morning, to work hard, to be responsible, if all it means is income below Id. It's the same as death to him.

How can we tell who is effectively suicidal? Nonsuicidal people still often rationally accept gambles, even gambles with a risk of death. The main way to tell the difference between effectively suicidal people (with a truncated utility function, as above) and nonsuicidal people is that suicidal people are insensitive to the potential for great losses, and are only motivated by the possibility of a big win; effectively suicidal people accept actuarially unfair gambles which do not properly compensate them for risk of loss (including risk of death). Nonsuicidal people demand to be compensated for risks of loss, including risk of death.

To the extent that people display risk preference and extreme future discounting of losses but not large gains – to the extent that they are willing to accept unfair gambles with a high probability of loss (Gamble) or improve their short-term well-being at potentially great cost to their future selves (Palliate & Wait) – the hypothesis of effective suicidality must be considered. Only by considering and rejecting this hypothesis, based on data and/or reasons, could we meaningfully attribute these features to departures from the rational actor model, as Beaulier and Caplan do prematurely.

Beaulier and Caplan essentially argue against “welfare floors” because by cushioning the bad consequences of a gamble, they make antisocial gambles more attractive. But they ignore that there is a built-in welfare floor in any human society, welfare state or not: suicide.

It is inconsistent to maintain that, on the one hand, a welfare floor is undesirable because negative utilities are necessary as motivators for action, and on the other hand, that utility is rarely negative and hence procreation is morally innocent.

This model does not, however, predict mass suicides at any point, and the fact that suicide remains rare does not mean that many people do not have effectively suicidal, truncated utility functions. All this theory claims is that people act as if they don’t value their lives. Unsuccessful gambles may or may not be followed up with actual suicide; the costs of suicide are often greater than a pre-suicidal person realized when contemplating life paths, and are artificially elevated by the de facto suicide prohibition. Also, cheap palliation is widely available, allowing many would-be suicides (such as myself) to postpone this costly decision.

Policy Implications

The most important policy implication of the “mathematics of misery” I have outlined here – of the fact that many people appear to attach zero value to their lives – is that procreation becomes much more of a suspect enterprise. If people’s behavior reveals that they do not highly value their lives, then it is not “obvious,” as Bryan Caplan would have us believe, that human beings are benefitted by being brought into existence. A life that produces zero utility in the immediate present, and zero or negative utility for the foreseeable future, is hardly the kind of precious gift that would justify procreation, yet from this model it is likely that a substantial portion of the population of the world lives just this kind of life.

Someone whose utility function is negative for all time intervals would have been better off not having been born. Many people are in this situation through no fault of their own. A second policy implication for recognizing this is a move toward greater compassion in providing “palliative care” to people whose present utility and expected future utility are negative and whose only incentive to remain alive is uncertainty. As a society, we are willing to allow “palliative care” for terminally ill persons, but our middle-class model of risk aversion and the value of life prevents us from recognizing the need for palliative care in “healthy” people as well.

Third, there are implications for harm reduction, regardless of one’s position about the value of life. Viewing utility functions (and hence human motivation) in this light, we can see that a suffering person chooses from available gambles and palliation methods. Outlawing a particular type of gamble or palliation method will likely divert demand to other types of gambles or palliation, and hence will not reduce overall levels of harm unless substitution happens to be toward less harmful activities. Recognition of this “demand for risk” should guide policy decisions regarding dangerous activities.

What Real Human Utility Functions Are Functions Of

The utility function does appear to be a function of income – within a country, wealthier people are less miserable. But it is also a function of one’s past incomes – receiving a higher income increases utility in the short run, but in the long run, it sets a new baseline for utility (this is the hedonic treadmill). Utility is also a function of the incomes of near others (that is, a function of within-group status), which is why more direct income-utility correlation is found within-country than between countries.

However, as I have written previously, more than anything, a human utility function is a function of social belonging. That's the ultimate point not only of income, but of intelligence, beauty, and many other material and non-material goods: they may be traded for social belonging. The ability to provide others with what they want is the opposite of burdensomeness, a pillar factor of suicide risk in Thomas Joiner’s model (the other pillars are social belonging as such, and competence in carrying out the act of suicide). We want income because we want to be able to get the attention of others. We want a safe social place, primarily – and, of course, we want a better social place than the one we currently occupy.

The primary good, for humans, is group belonging. There is only so far up or down you can go in a social group, only so much room for status manipulation – otherwise you have to find a whole new social group. Within a group or class, we’d like to go up, but we’d HATE to go down. Each person sees a huge drop-off in utility when considering the loss of his present group belonging, no matter whether his present group is high or low in status relative to greater society. This has very little to do with absolute material welfare.

This is why the guy choosing television and phones over food is making the right choice. Group belonging really is more important than short-term well-being. He is even displaying risk aversion, as is the poor black parent who gives her child a name that strongly signals group belonging at the expense of belonging in other groups or classes.

It’s extremely difficult to join a whole new social group. Everyone faces a utility drop-off, a chasm, at the prospect of losing social belonging – a process sometimes described as social death. People behave as if losing one’s social group and status is worse than death. This is strong evidence that social death really is worse than death.

Poor Baby or Rich Baby: Which Is Worse?

Data about crime, drug use, and other forms of risk preference and palliation seem to indicate that poor people are more likely than rich people to display the kind of truncated, effectively suicidal utility function I have been discussing. This could support the claim that it is more wrong for a poor person to have a child than for a rich person.

However, when we realize that social belonging trumps everything, we see that what really determines the value of life is the opportunity to be party of a social group. Middle class people have different relevant social groups from poor people, and the very wealthy have different social groups altogether. A child born into one of these groups must establish a place for himself; if few places are available, downward mobility (social death) is indicated. Therefore a person born into a very wealthy social group that has few opportunities for belonging may be in a worse position than a person born into poverty but with many opportunities for belonging.

As Becker & Posner note, the nature of the "Gamble" you can buy depends on your present income; higher present incomes buy better gambles, with a higher probability of success. Therefore, wealthier people may succeed in their suicide gambles more often than poor people, so their gambles are more socially invisible than those of the poor - but they are still making them.

However, the social belonging hypothesis that I have been advancing here (that social belonging is the primary determinant of utility) implies that the income at which life becomes worth living, Id, varies with one's existing social situation, hence with initial income. Wealthy effectively-suicidal people start out with more initial income - they have more to gamble with - but they have a higher mark to reach for their gambles to be successful. It is not clear which effect predominates.

See also:


  1. This is very true. People born to poorer families are likelier to be "accepted" working in odd jobs to survive than those from the middle class.

    For the filthy rich, however, making money itself becomes less important. While the filthy rich may not "accept" their children becoming janitors, they can support them for as long as is needed in their quest to become an artist or an actor or a big-shot politician. They often do, too.

  2. In other words, "palliative care" is easier for those born into filthy rich families.

  3. Sister Y,

    I intend to give this thoughtful consideration; I'll be busy with work and excellent play for the next week, however. Below are inchoate, relatively unelaborated comments.

    (A) The picture of personal identity you give is binary, *and* physically reductive. It asserts that we are are our (epi-)genes, and that something that we are not is the genes very similar to the ones we have. Many theories of personal identity, however, are not binary -- we identify (correctly) more strongly with our selves of forty minutes ago than our selves of forty years ago, and we identify (correctly) with identical twins to some extent, and with family and friends to a much lesser extent. And if our physical bodies were destroyed but our consciousnesses were uploaded into a simulator, we would still identify as "ourselves". Parfit figures strongly here.

    (B) Revealed preference is often the best we can do in making *ordinal* judgements about the utility of alternatives, but it's (a) hardly reliable, and (b) not as good at making {*cardinal*/*quantitative*} judgements. For an extreme example of (a), see the pathetic golem. For (b), since we only choose one option out of several, revealed preference can only say which is the *best* choice; it can't say how much each choice would have improved our utility.

    (C) Akrasia is a can of worms. You don't need to go there. Akratic behavior is irrational behavior, even if an akratic actor's cogitation is rational. I say it's a can of worms because a strong case can be made that akrasia doesn't really exist. When we do something against our better judgement, we're not really free to do otherwise. Whether you "believe in" akrasia or not (and are confident in your ability to defend it), your essay could be tighter without bringing it up.

    (D) The characteristically-black names don't *cause* the children to have worse life outcomes; they're indicative of starting out disadvantaged. It sounds like you're simply misinterpreting the study.

    (E) A stretch: Something that has made me more receptive to antinatalism but that I haven't seen among professional philosophers is the idea that joy and suffering[1] are incommensurable. It just seems obvious to quantitative consequentialists that meaningful positivity and meaningful negativity are commensurable, just as it seems obvious to Nagel and Caplan[2] that existence is good. I would love to see you run with skepticism toward joy-suffering commensurability.

    [1] FWIW, I don't think that pain is intrinsically bad. Eating food with capsaicin is objectively painful, as is anal sex. Yet among those who have acquired the tastes, eating hot foods and getting fucked in the ass are awesome experiences. And I don't think that eating hot food is beneficial *despite* the pain of exposure to capsaicin; it is beneficial in part *because of * the exposure to capsaicin.
      Similarly, I don't think that pleasure is intrinsically good. Morally relevant consequences are those that befall beings who experience something that seems reasonably well to map onto what we appellate as "joy" and "suffering".

    [2] Several months ago, I made a disparaging remark about Caplan. I wish to retract it. I still maintain that his imagination is fertile in a relatively circumscribed field, though I cannot deny either its virtues within that field nor the name he is likely to make for himself in the coming years.

  4. Superb piece; one of your best. I'm definitely in the "palliate and wait" category. Having income for rent, food and books has always satisfied me; I've never striven for more, and indeed have always felt weirdly uncomfortable when having a relatively healthy bank balance (like the bloated feeling after a large meal). This may lead to trouble in the long run, but I find life so inconsequential as to feel unmotivated to do anything about it. I also worry a little that I can't really identify with the social belonging approach: I've a few close friends who pursue different lifestyles and that's enough for me. The antinatal blog community also serves as a social outlet. By "normal" standards, I am completely fucked up, but when I look at those "normal" people, I feel no desire to join them:-)

  5. This an outstanding post meriting far more attention than I can give it right now (I hope I can do more later), but I'll make two (I hope) useful remarks here.

    (1) A caveat on utility. It's not necessarily wrong to identify utility with some psychological property, but keep in mind that that the orthodox approach in economics doesn't attribute any particular psychological content to utility functions, understanding them simply as consistency in choices. (A good quick introduction might be Ken Binmore, Rational Decisions. [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009], pp. 1-24). You might want to consider bridging the gap between just consistency and some richer account.

    (2) I am intrigued by the concept of palliation as an alternative to suicide. If this is indeed going on it would appear to have an intriguing normative implication that there can be such a thing as rational (but not directly suicidal suicidal) self-destructive behaviors. The theory would also appear to have testable implications. One possibility that immediately suggests itself is that the outcome of a "successful" prohibitionist effort against some kind of self-destructive behavior that people use to palliate their existences (e.g. drug use) would not actually reduce self-destructive behaviors all that much -- palliators would simply substitute other self-destructive behaviors, or in some cases commit suicide. (This leads me to think that there must be some illuminating natural experiments out there, although unfortunately at the moment I cannot think of any.)

  6. Interesting article, the only criticism I would make is that if you want to make the argument more intuitive to someone who isn't experienced with decision theory (like myself) I would make it more clear at the beginning that you are talking about the additive expected utility of a life over time. I had to consult the Becker and Posner paper to clear this up although it is definitely implicit in your article.

    You are on to something with your criticism of Caplan's positions on welfare floors and procreation... although there is still the possibility of irrationality via the 'tragedy of the commons', an individual having children could have positive utility for that individual but net negative utility for pretty much everyone else. Welfare floors might make this worse, but it could easily be worth it given there would be less effectively suicidal people running around.

  7. Srikant - I hadn't thought of that. The availability of family support is relevant to initial income in Becker and Posner's model. It makes me think of hikikomori - a phenomenon of school refusal and acute social withdrawal, shown to be much more common among middle-class families capable of supporting an unproductive adult child than among poor families. Hikikomori appears to me to be an effective suicidality behavior.

  8. JasonSL - great comments as always.

    A - I actually don't understand what this relates to or refers to - if you have time maybe you can explain?

    B - I have a pretty limited project here - "bad world" antinatalism, rather than pure antinatalism. I agree that no amount of human behavior could show us that life is genuinely worth living in the abstract (or not worth living), but I think it's relevant that we often seem willing to trade life for something with a calculable, low value. Revealed preference is a striking counterpoint to introspection.

    C - You're probably right. My ex-lover has the personalized license plate "AKRATIC" which I think is pretty funny to see in traffic.

    D - actually I was referring to real, measurable harm just from having a black name (I just misremembered and linked the wrong article) - thought the REASON that employers don't call people with black names is as you state. The fact that people with unusual names do worse, but that it's only a function of birth circumstances, shows that name is a reliable signal of something - which is fucked up and sad.

    E - I have tried to approach incommensurability, and I believe in it at least when making decisions for others, but I haven't gotten a really good theoretical handle on it.

    Eating food with capsaicin is objectively painful, as is anal sex.

    Ur doin it rong <3

    1. "Ur doin it rong <3"

      Maybe he just has too much to do it with.

  9. Karl - thank you! The Becker & Posner model closely mirrors my own suicidal thought processes through different phases and times. When I really mentally committed to suicide was when I realized there was no I-sub-d for me - that nothing in the world could make life worth living.

    But marijuana and running and sex and talking to people about philosophy are nice. Gee, the sun's out today!

  10. James -

    You might want to consider bridging the gap between just consistency and some richer account.

    I like that.

    (2) I'm going to have to think about, but the first place I'm going to look is Posner's writing on drug prohibition.

  11. Ken S - that was bothering me too. I added a couple sentences of explanation - thanks.

    although there is still the possibility of irrationality via the 'tragedy of the commons', an individual having children could have positive utility for that individual but net negative utility for pretty much everyone else

    Ha ha - Caplan apparently doesn't think that's a problem.

  12. I thought about this all before and I think you are only half-right. Yes risky behaviors in unhappy individuals can be modeled as a sort of suicide vs. success gamble.

    But suicide is never rational. Their models won't don't account for why we have middle-class teenagers swallowing bottles of pills but also starving and diseased peoples of the Third World fighting for life with every breath. So high is the proportion of individuals committing/attempting suicide when it is a clearly an irrational choice that they have failed to prove that there is ever a circumstance in which suicide is rational.

    The closest thing that we could come to a rational model for suicide is that individuals are mistaken about the payoffs. Perhaps it is mistaken by social mimicry: "that individual believes suicide is the rational best option so maybe it is for me". It could be mistaken by denial: "this cannot be all there is to life, I must have a better option". Or it could be mistaken by a false choice: "If I don't kill myself someone else will have to kill me for being such a lousy person".

    But I don't think people truly want oblivion. Are there any suicidal animals? Do cows, living in a miserable agribusiness factory, run to the slaughter when they discover it kills them? I don't think so. Suicide is a glitch in our social programming. It is a mental disorder that is simply misguided to recommend in any circumstance.

  13. Sister Y - Thanks. The Wiki link says:
    "Though acute social withdrawal in Japan appears to affect both genders equally, for maturing boys and girls, the whose sons, typically their eldest, refuse to leave the home, often after experiencing one or more traumatic episodes of social or academic failure."

    However, it gives a different reason for why the middle and upper-middle class families see this more.
    "Middle class affluence in a post-industrial society such as Japan allows parents . Lower-income families do not have hikikomori children because a socially withdrawing youth is ."

    I don't know how 'forced' this is. And it is as if hikikomori children from financially-OK families aren't 'forced' to stay at home.

  14. This is excellent work.

    You said: "But a would-be suicide need not suffer. He has an ace up his sleeve: all suffering is the same as death to him, for he can use death to escape any suffering."

    But then below you said the would-be suicide doesn't need to actually commit suicide. In that case, it's not quite an ace up his sleeve -- he cannot escape suffering.(?) Doesn't palliation just increase utility?

    Perhaps the argument is that some people have a truncated utility function in a counterfactual world where suicide isn't effectively illegal.(?) For example, they would commit suicide if it didn't cause their family to suffer, etc

    I haven't missed the point about someone being effectively suicidal. I'm just trying to relate the ace up the sleeve argument with the rest of the post.

  15. Hi Jeffrey!

    I am not sure what your basis is for the claim that suicide is never rational. Would you dispute that suicide is rational if one correctly projected a future life of nothing but suffering? Do you assert that I am irrational for wanting to die?

    Your mention of animals makes me suspect you are conflating "rational" with the programming of evolution. However, the best strategy for passing on our genes is rarely the best strategy for maximizing one's values (utility or whatever) in the real world. We are nature's bitches, which is to say, "our" interests are very different from what gene-dispersion-maximization would have us do.

    Their models won't don't account for why we have middle-class teenagers swallowing bottles of pills but also starving and diseased peoples of the Third World fighting for life with every breath.

    Easy: they value life differently. That's why I think it makes sense for people like me to be able to give our organs to people "fighting for life with every breath," because organs do people like me no good, and would do people like that lots of good.

  16. Srikant, the quotation you inserted got cut off, here's the full one:

    "Middle class affluence in a post-industrial society such as Japan allows parents to support and feed an adult child in the home indefinitely. Lower-income families do not have hikikomori children because a socially withdrawing youth is forced to work outside the home."

    I think the idea is there just isn't enough money to feed a hikikomori child in a poor family - day-to-day palliation isn't available, in the terminology I'm using.

  17. neq1 - the "ace up his sleeve" is only in his imagination at the point when he chooses to gamble or palliate. He may turn out to be literally wrong about the costs of suicide, or the hedonic treadmill may catch him up and he may "realize" that the circumstances he projected as being so bad (even social death) are not really so bad that he wants to die just yet.

    Suicide prohibitionists want to define this "after the fact" evaluation of circumstances as the only rational one. The pre-gamble/palliation person, in their view, was just "wrong" about the future (most of us wouldn't want to live as a quadriplegic, but most quadriplegics want to continue living). I see the earlier, future-imagining person as having at least some claim to reality/rationality, and the later, actual-experiencing person could just as well be "mistaken" in retrospect about the value, in some sense. Another way to put this is that the later person might be happy after the fact, but the future-imagining person has the right not to go through social death to become that happy-ish later person.

    The most difficult objection I've gotten to this whole thing was from one of my boyfriends (on the way to the Tau Day celebration at CalTech, haha) - he posits that the Becker-Posner model (where a person operates with a plan in mind to commit suicide if the gamble fails or circumstances don't improve after palliating for the current time interval) is indistinguishable from a situation where people are just too stupid to imagine the bad outcome. I'm still trying to figure out how to distinguish the two.

    Time is hard.

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  19. Oh, it must've got cut off because I'd put it in less-than sign–greater-than sign for emphasis. I just recalled how to format text when writing comments on blogs. =)

    They consider differing "social expectations" wrt gender, but not financial affluence of the family.

    It also makes a mention that the eldest children (sons) are likelier to do this. Since I have an elder sister and find appeal in the idea of being hikikomori, I would think this happens because if a person's older sibling's been "normal", that person's very strongly expected to be normal too.

    We must note that both being driven into hikikomori and being driven out of hikikomori can be painful for the person who hates his/her social life.

  20. Srikant, regarding birth order, there's an interesting model (family-niche model) that posits that siblings have incentive to behaviorally differentiate within-family in order to individually maximize parental investment. I can't find a good blog/magazine summary, but here's a paper on it.

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  22. Jeffrey Eldred:

    "But suicide is never rational."

    I can't really agree with this position, other than in cases of some kinds of psychotic break or other form(s) of gross delusion, perhaps. In the case of payoffs, I'm not sure how a suicide can be said to have been 'mistaken' regarding their quality one way or the other, since we're only talking about actions taken with incomplete knowledge, which pretty much defines ANY actions we take. Yes, their assessments may ultimately turn out to have been inadequate, but I'm not sure that rises to the level of irrationality. Is it all that unreasonable to deduce that the life I don't like now won't somehow transform into a life I DO like sometime in the future? I mean, it might, but in many cases it seems just as likely that it won't. So, the options are either stick it out through the misery in hopes of an unsecured better tomorrow, or decide to take an earlier train out of town. That's not to say there aren't emotional underpinnings to suicide, but of course that applies to anything we do.

    "Suicide is a glitch in our social programming. It is a mental disorder that is simply misguided to recommend in any circumstance."

    Or maybe suicide is the ultimate act of reason, a rising above this morass of boiling protoplasm to see it for what it really is. We're all dying, after all. What's so rational about a notion that says the only rational course is to hang in there until the very end, no matter what? What each person ultimately chooses to do all comes down to personal reasons, I guess, but it seems to me that suicide can certainly fall within the spectrum of reasonable choices a person could make.

  23. Maybe I am just too averse to economics and economics-based reasoning, but I don't really see the point of this entry.

    "But suicide is never rational."

    You're full of it, buddy.

  24. tl:dr would be "Most people find it axiomatic that we are all lucky to be alive, but a simple economic model demonstrates that a substantial portion of the population seems to place zero value on their current lives, the rarity of suicide notwithstanding."

  25. Sister Y,

    I'm glad you found my comments useful or in some capacity "great". Re: your responses:

    A - I was just picking a nit with the first two (long) paragraphs. I get the feeling that some of it was rhetorical.

    By binary, I mean that two individuals are either the same person or are not the same person. But personhood need not be an all-or-nothing affair -- a zygote progressively gains attributes of personhood into adulthood, and an Alzheimer's victim progressively loses attributes of personhood until death.

    When someone says, "you're a changed man!", or, "she's not herself today", they mean that they perceive psychological discontinuity. But they don't mean, or at least they don't think that they mean, that the person is a different person from before. But what makes someone the same person as another? What makes our 30-year-old selves the same person as our 3-year-old selves?

    Pretty clearly not physical continuity -- if we could grow a brain in a vat and treat it such that if you were anaesthetized, your brain removed, and the vat brain implanted, no sense of change would be experienced (your memories, personality, mental abilities, etc. before the operation and the memories, personality, and mental abilities of the entity that walks out of the clinic), then we would say that the person who walked in and the person who walked out are the same.[1]

    Personal identity (to the extent that we care about it) really is psychological connectedness and continuity (and/or perhaps social connectedness and continuity -- would someone never exposed to other animals (incl. humans) have a "sense of self"?). And psychological connectedness and continuity (PsyConCon) between the me of today and the me of tomorrow is quite strong, but between the me of today and the me of thirty years ago or thirty years hence is rather weaker, and is weaker still between me and other physical individuals.

    But there are aspects of PsyConCon I share with others that I don't share with the me of, say, twenty years ago. I share memories with people I have met in the past twenty years. We have mutually influenced each other so that something of their way of thinking and perceiving and feeling is now mine, and vice versa.

    And by physically reductive, I mean partly what I was saying about the brain operation and partly that we are not our genes or the gametes that gave rise to us. Had another sperm cell fertilized the ovum that produced me, the resulting person (Jason_2) would probably be more similar to me than almost anyone else (or maybe truly anyone else) in the world. We'd share half our distinctive genes, our gestational environment, our upbringing, etc. Jason_2 would have substantial overlap with the actual Jason in terms of memories, social- and self-identification, and ways of thinking and perceiving and feeling.

    If I were taken out of time and shown a different sperm fertilizing the ovum that produced me that was genetically very similar but had a few minor differences -- maybe my hair turned out a little lighter, or I was left-handed, or I enjoyed team sports more -- but pursued the same course in life, meeting the same partner, still being a scientist, etc., and then were told that I"d be returned to time with this different genetic source, I would feel less discombobulated and less like the old me was being replaced by someone else than if the alternative history didn't replace the sperm but did have my mother die in childbirth, or had my parents win the lottery when I was young and radically change their lifestyles and my upbringing, or something else like that.

    [1] If we don't call the entities the same person, then personal identity doesn't matter. Someone with brain cancer who needed the operation would not consider the operation tantamount to euthanasia, and if they did but went through with it anyway, then continuity of personal identity doesn't matter to them.

  26. B & C - Fair enough on revealed preference. This may be getting somewhat far afield, but I'm generally skeptical that we know how good various options are for us, and even that we can give much of an ordering of various options. Or maybe we *know*, but that knowledge doesn't inform our actions nearly as much as introspection and conventional wisdom say it does.

    We're usually pretty good at judging whether an option is acceptable (vide studies on satisficing versus optimizing), and it is indeed difficult (though hardly impossible) to come up of examples where we knowingly make an unacceptable choice. Other than that, however, I'm not convinced that humans are that much more special than other animals in the quality of our decision-making (as opposed to decision-defending and -promoting).

    When a male lion defeats a rival and gains control of a group, he kills the cubs fathered by other males. I don't see why we ought to believe that he is pulled by the telos of diverting resources toward cubs that carry his genes -- killing other lions' cubs is just what victorious male lions do. Evolution is blind, so there's no pulling forward by a goal -- there's only pushing by drives that have been retained through selection (and drift).

    Similarly, when humans pursue income or status, I don't think we're doing it because we're pulled by the goals of providing resources for our children and securing more mates, or even by the now-separated-from-evolution goals of wanting stuff that happens to be expensive or wanting to be seen as powerful and/or discerning by the other sex (or the same sex). I think we evolved to do things that, at least in the EEA, made us better competitors for resources, status, and quality of sexual partners. We've gotten more sophisticated at it and can more effectively channel our drives than did our pre-civilization, pre-human, pre-hominid, and pre-mammalian ancestors, but fundamentally we're pushed by our inheritance rather than pulled by chosen goals.


  27. (B & C cont'd)

    In the course of developing sophisticated reasoning machines and language and culture and introspection (some would say in that order, in fact), we've been able to get a sense of how our suffering and joy is affected[1] and we've also gained the power to make more widely-ranging and joy/suffering-affecting choices. These choices range from day-to-day decisions about whether to watch TV or go for a jog to life decisions about what career to pursue and whether to have children.

    So decision-making as being pulled by the teloses (teloi?) of maximizing or even just increasing our utility (i.e., increasing joy and decreasing suffering) is extremely novel in Nature and has probably been around for on the order of 10-100 thousand years. Decision-making as being pushed by blind adaptive drives or proclivities has been around in one form or another for billions of years, and in the same form as our "urges" since the Cambrian period 500 million years ago (cephalopods existed back then. Start counting with reptiles if you must, but that's still 300 million years.).

    This is not to deny that we do sometimes act rationally. But I think we have a bias in our estimation of how often we act rationally and how rationally we act when we act rationally at all. Our drives and proclivities are largely adaptive, so they "work" and can be rationalized ex post, but most of the rationalization/reasoning we do is of this ex post variety rather than ex ante, and for most of what we do, we don't employ it at all.[2]

    The relatively few times we do make decisions based on trying to achieve a goal are disproportionately salient when we examine our lives and those of others. So revealed preference is useful, but it should be understood as saying that what people do reveals what they're driven to do and reveals that the decisions they made they did not deem unacceptable. They may not have deemed them at all. They may have deemed other decisions also acceptable had those decisions occurred to them; the decisions may indeed have occurred to them but were not chosen for any number of reasons or for no reasons at all.

    Even this more modest version of revealed preference (really "revealed acceptability") is powerful enough to support your project. The decision to not put UV-transparent bottles on your roof to sanitize the water and thereby reduce the chance of potentially fatal disease but at the same time signal poverty is revealed to be an acceptable one. And given that you were aware of the possibility of indeed putting the bottles on the roof yet never did so is evidence that doing so would be unacceptable.[3]

    [1] It's hard to demonstrate, but I'm pretty sure that other mammals experience suffering and joy as well (not just pain and pleasure).

    [2] Did you do any rationalizing when you decided to look at (or skip) this footnote?

    [3] Not provably so: flipping a coin twenty times and getting heads every time doesn't prove that the coin is unfair, but it's much more likely to occur if the coin is indeed unfair, so it's strong but not undefeatable evidence.

    D - yeah. Shit. I suppose this isn't the blog to visit if I'm looking for a pick-me-up :)[1]

    [1] Surprisingly, it often is a pick-me-up. I suspect it has something to do with evoking life-salience.

  28. E - Do you believe in incommensurability when making decisions for others because you think it in the aggregate results in things turning out for the better, or because you think it violates their rights or autonomy to be made to suffer non-consensually in exchange for receiving purely joy?

    E1 - How to deal with incommensurability

    As for theory, just off the top of my head, you could have two parallel and non-interacting quantitative consequentialisms, one for joy/happiness and one for suffering/misery, and have some non-consequence-based criteria for deciding among actions that affect both the level of joy/happiness and suffering/misery, or, more boldly, deny that such criteria exist. But then this takes you either more or less to negative utilitarianism if you don't care about individuality or to something Shiffrin-esque that basically doesn't allow anybody to do anything since almost everything you do will cause harm to somebody. (It could also take you somewhere horrific, where it's fine to cause suffering provided that you also cause a nonzero amount of joy.)

    But a practical problem is that causing suffering usually also diminishes joy, and causing joy usually also diminishes suffering (even if only temporarily, by distraction). The calculus has to deal with feedback loops and I doubt it's terribly useful as a guide to decision-making. What I'm personally most comfortable with is saying that (1) it's extremely problematic to commensurate joy with suffering, that (2) things can generally get a lot worse to a greater extent than they can get better, and it's a lot easier to fuck things up than to make things better, that (3) when we think about utility we're likely to make the mistake of reasoning about it as if it were like wealth (about which our reasoning is much better developed), and so (Conclusion) we should make the low-variance play and have a strong presumption in favor of ameliorating and preventing suffering versus enhancing and preserving joy.


  29. E2 - Ethics is not an optimization problem

    I don't think this is a terribly solid basis for a comprehensive theory that always has an answer to whatever question you throw at it, but such theories may not be warranted. There are undecidable problems in mathematics, and problems in physics with no exact solution, but this isn't because mathematics and physics are "defective". Even if optimal solutions exist, I don't see why we should presuppose that our species can find a way to reliably identify it and act on it. A general solution to optimizing ethical decisions may be like trisecting an angle, and humans have only a compass and a straightedge.

    If ethics is to be more than masturbatory, an ethical theory should be assessed on how well it gets us to actually make better decisions in addition to specifying what the better decisions are. And as discussed in B & C, having the rational tools and framework to find the best decision doesn't translate efficiently into enacting the best decision. An ethical theory that's heavy on calculation may in fact be detrimental -- even if it always provided a way to, in theory, identify the best option -- because calculation is in practice unreliable and more likely to be used to rationalize decisions ex post than lead to decisions ex ante.

    People who do moral philosophy in the analytical tradition are often the kinds of people who, if things had gone a little differently, might have been economists or mathematicians instead. So "a really good theoretical handle" might a tight theory, or a quantitative theory. Something systematic and algorithmic. I can see the attractiveness of something simple like "always maximize utility" or "never harm someone without their consent except to prevent or relieve a greater harm", but I think these rules might be like the ancient belief that celestial bodies all moved in perfect circles: elegant and attractive, but wrong.

    Ur doin it rong <3

    Am I also doing pepper-eating wrong?

  30. Re: B&C - SO SO SO important. I am fuzzy on, but extremely interested in, the degree to which evolved tendencies and preference are "us" or are "rational" or "irrational" - we are both alienated from, and defined by, our evolved shit. I completely agree with your analysis that we are "pushed by inheritance rather than pulled by chosen goals" - even the "I," the awareness, is an evolved thing. Our project is figuring out how to think about an evolved meat brain with an evolved meat brain . . .

    I love "revealed acceptability." I will need to think about that more.

  31. E - I'm going to wait until I have more brain power available to deal with that.

    Re: peppers - actually it's a powerful example. Capsaicin was the example that my roommate successfully used to convince our Catholic friend that BDSM sex was not inherently demeaning. (I was kidding about there being something wrong with painful anal sex, if pain is your preference.)

  32. "The bad choices made by poor people are a result of their inability to forecast the future effects of their actions, combined with laziness."

    And the bad choices made by rich people are a result of their inability to forecast the future effects of their actions, combined with laziness, which doesn't matter because they'll be fine regardless.

    "Don’t just think gangs and lotteries and crime and crack. Think about people pursuing acting or singing careers..."

    I know a woman who thinks of herself as an opera singer. She doesn't have Charles Foster Kane supporting her but her brother has stopped paying for her fantasies. And he's only about as rich as Jamie Dimon.

  33. Ouch: a typo. Her brother has not stopped paying for her fantasies.

    I hope your parents have stopped paying for yours.

  34. Thanks for the invigorating bite of anonymous Internet hostility. I don't think financial independence exists, because all first-world consumption depends on the suffering of poor people. But I do have the distinction of supporting myself solely from the suffering of poor people, rather than my relatives. Luckily it's not that expensive to be an Internet crackpot.

    Why do you think parents don't have the responsibility to give their children a shot at happiness, since it was the parents who shoved them out into the world without their consent?

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  37. Francisco Scaramanga: When I was a boy I was brought up in a circus. My only real friend was a huge, magnificent African bull elephant. One day, his handler mistreated him and he went berserk. Bleeding, dying, he came and found me, stood on one leg, his best trick, picked me up and put me on his back. The drunken handler came along and emptied his gun into his eye... I emptied my stage pistol into his!
    James Bond: An eye for an eye.
    Francisco Scaramanga: You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I loved animals. Then I discovered that I enjoyed killing people even more.

    "Why do you think parents don't have the responsibility to give their children a shot at happiness"
    The woman was in her 60's when I met her.

    No adult has any right to their illusions. They'll continue to have them but that's not reason to approve of something just because its common. Most people are greedy. Does that give me "permission" to be greedy?

    The poor are punished for their illusions, the rich aren't. The poor are punished it they are merely average, since only the exceptional can see their way out. The exceptional and poor also need to be a capable of a cold more than an empathetic rationality to escape: a kind of self-centered-ness. That's a description first a criticism second.

    Pleasure is not a kind of object, it's a kind of response. If there were an absolute right to pleasure then a hit man would have the right to the pleasures of his trade.

  38. "The poor are punished for their illusions, the rich aren't. The poor are punished it they are merely average, since only the exceptional can see their way out."

    Well, by the way, this is one of the fundamental ways in which the world is bad.

    Capitalism, communism, mixed economy, none of them are universally agreeable solution to this problem.

    The cause of this problem is not politico-economic: it's biological. Not everyone is born equal. Even if you put every child ever born in the same orphanage, inequalities shall remain. Some will swim fare better, some will fare worse.

    Antinatalism, on the other hand, will uproot this problem, and eliminate the need for any solution. It simply won't matter.

  39. Sister Y,

    I think I had latently believed that pain was not inherently bad for a while, but it was during a conversation with a friend that I first articulated the position, and I used capsaicin as an example, which convinced him, and likewise convinced me, which needed some doing, as it was the first time the surface level of consciousness had been challenged with that proposition.

    I was part of a mindfulness group a year ago, and the instructor said, "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional". I don't think that he meant that it is possible to exist free of suffering; rather it was a rhetorical move to try to get us to separate pain from suffering. I found it effective. I still suffer, of course, and I doubt that any human doesn't, but the default way we go about life is one that translates pain into suffering unnecessarily readily. There are better ways to operate; some of them have been discovered. Buddhists have some very useful techniques that I have found to work even without accepting factive claims about the world (the supernatural stuff, essentially) I believe to be false.

  40. "Not everyone is born equal"
    We are not born identical. The rich have a variety of opportunities to discover things they might enjoy and do well at. The poor have far fewer options. Which doesn't mean that there are more general definitions of capacity, but there's no reason to focus on them, since every genius in some field is still an idiot in most others.

    The poor also don't have to time to indulge their misery; when opportunities arrive for pleasure they grab them. Indulging sentiment under the guise of philosophical reflection is more perverse than watching the UFC: moderately erudite self pity; the angst of educated white american ex-suburban, neo-urbanites. Reading Kafka and listening to the National. The Decline of the West Dance Party. But no one's dancing cause that would be fun, and you're beyond that.

    To paraphrase another melodrama queen :
    You're dying for somebody's sins but not mine.

  41. So you think we're born "equal"? In what respect? Definitely not in the ability to make money? Because if we were, economic inequality wouldn't have originated in the first place because we would have "started off" with equal opportunities.

    This "equal but different" is a "cheery" idea. Different people may be gifted differently, but alas, some gifts are useless. Albert Einstein's said, "If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it'll live its whole life thinking it's stupid." In the real world, climbing trees may indeed be more "important" than swimming.

    Read about evolution: it doesn't presume atheism or even agnosticism.

  42. This post really hits home; suicide has been my ace in the hole from a very early age. It's a strategy I've used consciously and consistently. I'm not sure whether I'm a suicide or... well, I don't know what else to call it. A future-unpredictability addict?

  43. Very good post, thank you for writing it. It would be nice if all humans had portable reliable suicide methods that cannot be taken away from them and that do not rely on the permission of others.

    By the way, has Bryan Caplan ever addressed this post, or the points in it?

  44. Have not seen any response by Bryan Caplan on this subject - if anybody knows of one, I'd be interested.

  45. I think your blog's title is a total misnomer: if you're still able (emotionally, physically and financially) to enjoy drugs, sex, running and talking about philosophy as you yourself claim you clearly haven't got the slightest notion of what hell consists of. I fail to see why you'd qualify for the above mentioned definition of rational suicide when you have money for dope and life's neccesities (I've never seen a hobo with a laptop maintaining a blog so I'm assuming you don't fall under that category), someone willing to be intimite with you, legs to run with, eyes to behold the sun with and a working brain and above average IQ to eloquently state your opinions. I'd have to agree with one of the previous commenters: your writings reveal you to be a drama queen with an education (money well spent no doubt) but alas very limited knowledge of the real world and real suffering. When that hits home, if it ever does, you'll not be amusing yourself with mildly interesting philosophical ramblings (which, somewhat dissapointingly, seem to largely consist of rehashing other people's ideas) originating in too much ego but you'll be running for the exit like all those poor souls that have gone before. And no: I'm not 'attacking' you personally but I do have a major problem with your egotistical line of thinking and the pseudo-intellectual decadence that underpins it (clearly old Sartre taught you well). When you refer to yourself as being in hell you make a mockery of all those people with no real chance in life and no time or even the ability to cheerfully condemn existence and their place in it, let alone broadcasting it over the internet. You may know some mathematics but you haven't got the slightest idea of true misery, for your sake I hope you never have to find out. Perhaps you, and probably the majority of your readers, could entertain the thought of actually doing something completely unselfish for someone in real trouble instead of this seemingly endless whining about how bad life really is. At least that would make the world a little less bleak and your own existence a little more meaningful. Since you seem to like philosophy I conclude with a quote that you as a postmodern intellectual should know: 'Experience praises the most happy the one who made the most people happy' (Karl Marx). Another appropriate advice would be that trying to understand the world and arguing about it is not enough, you have to act in order to effect a change, especially when the intellectual groundwork has already been done for you. Act on your beliefs and make life worthwhile, most of all don't take yourself so seriously and keep a measure of perspective.

  46. Anonymous, I don't know the life history of "Sister Y", but I would guess that she is yet another person who had their hopes for life dashed to pieces by reality, and that what you see now is the aftermath. You shouldn't assume that, because she has a quasi-tolerable life now, it has always been that way; and having been through that experience, it is entirely reasonable to want to spare others the same fate. As for "doing something uselfish", you also know nothing about her day job; and the "Hell" in the title refers to life on Earth in general, not just her personal experience.

  47. "I fail to see why you'd qualify for the above mentioned definition of rational suicide when you have... [followed by a list of stuff]"

    There is a fundamental misunderstanding about human nature in this argument.

  48. A most excellent analysis! Describes exactly the strategies i have been using for years.

    I think it could be very useful to gather and discuss promising gambling strategies.
    Even if you are willing to bet your life on allmost anything, not all gambles are equal.

  49. "The probability of your coming into existence was bogglingly small."

    No, it wasn't. It was at least as high as the probability that many-worlds or any other "all physically possible configurations are realized" theory is true. That's not small at all.


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