Thursday, January 27, 2011

Feeling Fantastic. A False Premise?

When we're in our element, feeling "charged" or whatever word you want to describe it, what's the source?

What if our positive feelings were fueled by something that caused harm in some way?

Or based on a delusion of some sort?

More to the point: how do we increase happiness and productivity in a way that is long lasting and meaningful?

I'm increasingly of the opinion that it is not a hugely fragile abstruse fairy land that might contains such a state of being, but the place we inhabit when we learn to strip away those distortions in our thinking that keep us repeating needless behavior that has the unique quality of being both valueless subjectively and objectively, and in all time frames short and long.  I'm not sure it means that we have no problems when we're there, or that we do not have responsibility toward things or people.  I know that it isn't a place with no responsibility or a place where we can simply veg out indefinitely.

Once we admit that we like to have interaction with people, and that we can get an emotional charge out of responsibly caring for something, whether it is property or a person or an animal or plant, then we have to ask if those two elements (interaction and responsibility) are in some ways over-represented in our current lives. 

I base this on the idea that what many people talk about re: "getting away from it all" has to do with other people and responsibility.  My question is whether we somehow magnify and distort our interactions with others and our responsibility in order to justify being lazy at times (to seek that fantasy land where, it seems to me, if we were to inhabit, we'd be dead!), or whether perhaps, because much responsibility and interaction doesn't further our own primary needs, we think of it as superfluous, even though at some small amount, it simply is not.

I think the answer comes back to whether we feel valued and appreciated.   In some way, feeling valued helps us to work more and contribute, and feeling undervalued makes us want to show up with the expected amount of [undervalued] intent.  I'm not sure.  If someone feels overvalued, it might be a stress.  It also might prove to keep them from doing something. 


Anonymous said...

For clarification: how do you distinguish between subjective and objective value?

hmm said...

I think objective value means that the value given is the same for everyone. A cup of coffee maybe costs 2.00 dollars for everyone who has the ability to visit a particular shop. But subjective value ranges: the coffee may be much more satisfying for you if you are tired, for instance, or if it is a relatively rarity (you don't drink coffee that much). Our needless behavior, I think, brings both subjective and objective to zero, or close to it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I'm nitpicking, but either the objective-subjective distinction is flawed or you chose a wrong example to explain what you mean. You seem to be confusing value with price. It's the price of coffee that's the same for everyone, not its value (aka "utility"). Almost every single customer will value the same $2 cup of coffee differently. Even people who are willing to pay exactly the same price for it will value it differently, because the same $2 represent different opportunity costs for people with different sets of preferences.

The fact that a cup of coffee is priced at $2 does not mean that there's some value of it that is the same for everyone, and is equal to $2. All it means is that a marginal cost of a cup of coffee is $2. And marginal cost of a cup of coffee is no more objective or subjective than my personal valuation of it. It can be different for different coffee vendors, for example.

Think of it this way. "Objective" means observer-independent. Marginal cost of a cup of coffee is observer independent, even though it can differ across producers (because all observers will agree that for producer A marginal cost is X while for producer B it's Y). But my own personal preferences are objective in this way, too. When I observe myself, I see that the utility I get out of a cup of coffee is such that I'm willing to pay, say, $5 for it. When you observe me, you see that the utility I get out of a cup of coffee is such that I'm willing to pay $5 for it.

It all depends on how you define objective vs. subjective, of course, but the bottom line is this: utility and marginal cost are on the same ontological standing. Either they're both subjective or they're both objective. I don't want to argue over which it is; it doesn't matter. The point is that the distinction between objective and subjective value is a false dichotomy.

A perhaps more important point is that the way in which you define "needless behavior" seems to be circular. What is needless behavior? It's behavior that is radically utility-decreasing. And how do we know that a behavior is utility-decreasing? Because it's needless. What am I missing here?

hmm said...

Thanks for the comments. Yes, I'm definitely talking about utility here, and that's a good point, it might not make sense to characterize it as objective verses subjective. My intent was to say that we should decrease behaviors that reduce value, and that sometimes we experience subjective value that can't be represented objectively (except in time it takes to experience it), like a conversation, and other times there are valueless items objectively because they don't create wealth for others. Now I see that the wall we're running up against is relative hierarchical preferences--we don't know what's valuable without a comparison point, and to have that point, we need some anchor, so it is hard to talk about reducing something (or increasing it) in an ultimate sense.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I see your point now. I think what you're trying to get at is a distinction between observable and non-observable preferences. We can only directly observe utilities that things have for us; we can't see other people's utilities, all we can do is infer them from their choices, such as how much they are willing to pay for different things, what types of jobs or sexual partners they choose etc. (this is called "revealed preferences"). A side point: it's not meaningful to say that something is "objectively valueless" because it doesn't generate wealth for others. If it has value to you, then it has value. Thing is, it may be the case that no one knows what that value is except you.

Of course we should decrease behaviors that reduce utility; that's trivial. The problem is that there are situations in which we have to trade off utilities against each other. And you're right that to make utility comparisons we need an anchor; we also already have that anchor, and it's called utility theory. Combined with game theory, it can tell you in which situations it's possible to reduce utility in an ultimate sense and in which it is not.