Choosing Happiness

Freedom is a kind of death.  This is a difficult concept.  Think about it, though, it’s in this post.

Choice is a difficult issue to talk about with philosophical, psychological, or scientific rigor.  Simply put, there are way too many possible choices for generalizations to cover them all.  I am the most ardent advocate of true freedom you will find, but actually, choice is not necessarily a desirable position. I have seen, generally, there are two breeds of choice drawn from two possible life situations, matching two possible conscious processes.  Constructive or reductive.  For choices, that is to say you will face either a constructive or a reductive choice.  Reductive choices are the bad ones- these are the choices of “OK, A or B.  Go.”  You have a finite number of options and it is the addition of an option that is notable.  Your field of choice is best defined by what you can choose.  By contrast, constructive choices are best represented by what you cannot choose.  Constructive choice: “What do you want to do?”  Reductive choice: “Would you like fries with that?”  The distinction is important because we tend not to think about our constructive choices, at all, ever.  A reductive choice, however, forces you to actually conceptualize that you have in fact got to make a choice.  If you’re faced with millions of these you are given the illusion of having a great deal of freedom, when in fact you’re essentially little more than a slave.  Reductive choices are subject to only two forces: personal economics and subjective value.  That is to say, if someone offered you $10 or $100, you’ll take the larger sum, of course.  If someone offered you an equivalent amount of chocolate or brussel sprouts, you probably prefer the chocolate because you think it tastes better, and will take that.  Yet if you don’t like chocolate or you’re a health nut, then perhaps the brussel sprouts give you a greater subjective value.

Constructive choices are not subject to the same personal economics plus subjective value analysis.  If you have a completely free day to do whatever you want, you might not necessarily do whatever you can to maximize your immediate payoff, or push your subjective value to the absolute limit.  I don’t think it’s even possible to rationally predict what a conscious entity of significant complexity will do in a situation of constructive choice.  What you can predict is what they won’t do.  Let’s say you walk into a massive grocery store and there’s a sign that says “you can buy anything in here, except this thing.”  Well we don’t know what the person is going to buy, but we can be sure they’re not going to take that option.  By the way, the reason why I call these choices constructive or reductive is that in a reductive choice you have a finite number of options and an indefinite/infinite number of non-options, or prohibited options, and in a constructive choice you have a finite number of non-options and an indefinite/infinite number of options.  It’s rather like the proposition of “innocent until proven guilty” is the constructive framing of prosecution, or the “legal until expressly prohibited” mentality.  We know we would be in trouble if our government began to mandate that all activity is illegal unless the government expressly allows it.  Nonetheless this exact same type of choice crops up everywhere, and everyone begins to think they are more free, when in reality their freedom is being systematically infringed upon by people who want you to choose to their advantage.  Don’t believe me?  McDonald’s or Burger King?  Christian, Jewish, Muslim?  15” or 17” laptop?  4% or 6% levy increase?  Democrat or Republican?  You get to pick!  Aren’t you powerful?  The easiest way to get someone to do what you want is to give them a reductive choice, and then restrict any unsatisfactory options until eventually they start choosing the one you want, ideally when they still have several options left other than the one they chose so they don’t feel manipulated.

True freedom consists entirely of constructive choices.  Of course in practical reality we will always have reductive choices, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  At any particular sandwich joint there will be a definite number of possible condiments.  How do we reconcile this with true freedom?  Easy.  In a much grander sense, you’re gifted with the inalienable freedom to restrict your own choices.  By walking up to that particular sandwich joint and agreeing to buy a sandwich, you chose to restrict the possible combinations of sandwich materiél to whatever was available right there.  You signed an implicit contract saying you were totally OK with the available condiment choices.  Nobody pointed a gun at your head and said “you, yes you, are going to buy a goddamn sandwich, right here, right now.  But, you are free to put whatever condiments you like on it from our generous selection.”  Even if it was a cheap and tasty sandwich with a diverse selection of toppings, I would still be extremely annoyed, to put it mildly.  Not to mention how those sandwiches, under that business model, won’t stay cheap and tasty for long.  However that is exactly what is happening today.  The government’s primary mode of, for want of a better word,  oppression, is to bait-and-switch your constructive choices for reductive ones and claim to have given you something.  The most obvious case is voting, “would you like the puppet on the left, or maybe the puppet on the right?”  Now, not all politicians are puppets, but there’s too much money and power sloshing around for rational idealists to stay that way for long.  But the other areas are no less significant, from taxes (you’re going to pay, but you have a say in where they’re spent), to public schools (you’re going to go, but you can pick your classes), to social security (you’re going to pay for it, but you don’t necessarily have to collect).  Unfortunately, most people are so used to having reductive choices that when they get the opportunity to be free, they reduce their situation to a reductive choice so they can psychologically deal with it.  Has it ever happened to you?  “What do you want to do?”  “I don’t know.  What do you want to do?”  “I don’t know.  Maybe we could X?”  “OK, sure.”

I’m not going to go too deep into this as a concept, but there’s a lot more to it.  Rather, I want to move onto the original intended topic of this post, with this new model in hand. Do we choose to be happy? Or, do choices make us happy?  My answer is no.  Ideally, choices don’t do anything for your level of happiness, because you’re faced with constructive choices.  Your actions can make you happy, but that’s totally different from the choice itself being the source of your happiness.  You might enjoy paintball, but you don’t wake up in the morning thinking “isn’t it great that in this life I have the option of choosing to play paintball?”  In fact, if you’re of that slant of mind, then having reduced choices might increase your happiness.  I’m not, but if you are then it does not mean there’s something wrong with you.  A choice is a stressor, in the purest terms.  Or perhaps an open door is not psychologically useful to you.  The most famous example of this is that ancient Chinese general, not sure of his name, who burned his ships so his troops would fight harder since they knew they wouldn’t go home unless they won.  Some types just want to be given a fixed situation, and they want to know what they need to do so they can just do it, and do it well.

Extraneous options are only appreciated by a rational agent with useful power to act.  If you’re in that position, however, then there is no such thing as a bad option.  Now, useful power to act is almost always derived from either property or skills, broadly speaking.  Information such as from book can be either, and a rational entity would have no problem reading any “controversial” work from Huck Finn to Mein Kampf, and derive whatever truth it can from either while avoiding being influenced by irrational or delusional ideas, and dealing with difficult issues and inappropriate material in a rational, mature way.  A hypothetical truly rational entity would have absolutely no issue with learning even usually “evil” skills such as how to hotwire cars, pick pockets, make bombs, whatever.  The reason for this is that even though those skills have a very low probability of ever being used in a rationalistic moral situation, they won’t be used until and unless they’re appropriate.  The same logic applies to everything- there’s no such thing as “bad property” as long as the holder is rational.  People accuse iPods of creating antisocial behavior in adolescents, and for the most part they’re right.  However, in their delusion, they then claim that the iPods are the problem, and not the rationality of the entity which owns them.  In the same manner you can’t say that any characteristic, part of the world, or your environment, is “bad.”  Unless you lack the rationality or the capacity to deal with it in a useful way, you can’t say that any aspect is somehow detrimental.  The internet is the perfect example.  It’s now a fact of life, and ingrained in our environment.  However there are people who think that we need to control what information is writable, or accessible, over the internet.  By doing so, by restricting your options, the agent doing the controlling is assuming that you, yes you, are too irrational and stupid to act in your own interest.  They are assuming that you will be adversely affected by whatever material they are suppressing in a manner which you cannot control.  They consider you a sheep that will eat whatever grass you randomly stumble across, and they need to make absolutely certain that it’s not poisonous, or even unpleasant for you to taste.  The way they do this is to restrict your choices, by impinging upon your freedom they can make sure that they can control you if you are actually rational, and if you aren’t then they are restructuring your environment to make sure that your fantasy world isn’t breached by reality.  You are the deer being protected from the T-Rexes, stopping you from evolving to fit actual objective reality.

So, do we choose to be happy?  No.  Is our happiness conditional on our surroundings, our property, or even our emotions?  We want to be free, but what are we really asking for when we ask for freedom?  We want to be faced with objective reality, our mettle against the tests of the world, discerning truth from our surroundings and acting upon it.  Rationality is pivotal towards being truly free.  But this I will tell you, rationality will not make you happy in and of itself.  As a matter of fact, rationality puts you in the hot seat, forces you to truly take responsibility and account for your own actions and forces you to compete in an evolutionary system.  Such competition is not fun!  I believe that we humans are imprinted in a very, very deep way about the horrors of being “in the wild,” of desperately scrabbling for food, avoiding predators, of freezing in the night and sweating from days of chasing our prey.  Short lives, uncertain prospects, a constant struggle.  Now, we wear clothes and live in secure homes with water, food, and shelter all conveniently packaged.  We can satisfy our desires for contact, sensory stimulation, and  self-actualization in zero-risk ways.  We visit nature reserves, go hunting and fishing, to even further reinforce our escape from and dominion over the uncaring and unforgiving Eden of Nature.  But it made us strong, and very, very smart.  That same fortitude is what is necessary to be rational in the modern world.  It’s so easy to just submerge in comforting delusions of consumerism, premasticated thought, and social nicety, but that way leads to the fall of the Roman Empire.  Every major state has fallen because their peoples have escaped from reality to the point that they can no longer sustain themselves in true competition, bringing the whole empire down.  They fell too far beneath the evolutionary system, to the point that those competing were unable to bail out those who weren’t, and the whole lot were selected out, as simple as that.

Choice will not make you happy.  Rationality will not make you happy.  What will make you happy, what ultimately will give you what you want, is the power to grasp what it is you want.  Free choice will let you search for it, and rationality, the struggle to keep up with the human evolutionary pressures derived from Truth, will give you the mettle to get it.  You need to seek it.  Seeking happiness is exactly what will make you happy.  And you’ll never get there.  It’s exactly like trying to keep up with the evolutionary system of objective reality and truth, only you’re trying to keep up with your own subjective reality instead.  Both are constantly changing and require constant attention.  You will never be finished.  So we arrive at the immortality of consciousness, the balance in biology of life and death extended into memetics.  Freedom is a kind of death.  Remember that.

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One Response to “Choosing Happiness”

  1. chthenos Says:

    This is very interesting. You say that people are trained by our society to prefer reductive choice over constructive choice, and you seem to suggest that this is bad. I also don’t like the thought of other people restricting my choices regarding my life and the world I live in. But as you say, making a constructive choice is a very hard problem. So, is it necessarily bad for someone to offer a reductive choice instead of a constructive choice?

    I believe that, when confronted with a constructive choice, people often convert it to a reductive choice by making a list of options and then picking one. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this — it seems like a pretty efficient way to deal with a constructive choice. You want to make a “good” choice, but it’s impossible to optimize when your options are unlimited, so first you try to pick a number of “good” options, and then you optimize among those. This allows you to make a reasonably good final choice even if your method of selecting options isn’t that great.

    If someone offers me a reductive choice, and I do a reasonably thorough analysis of the options, then in addition to the outcome of my choice I also benefit from a feeling of having “chosen right.” I did my analysis and I picked the best option. On the other hand, if I’m offered a constructive choice, I might be left with a feeling of missed opportunity — would I have found a better option if I had thought about it more? It seems to me that there’s some value to this.

    Additionally, making a constructive decision can be a costly task. Suppose I am hungry and want to cook dinner. (This is based on personal experience.) I could go shopping, so this is a constructive choice — I have effectively infinite options. But I don’t want to make that choice without considering it carefully. I’ll look through cookbooks, think about possible spices and cooking methods and suchlike. I want to construct a choice that will closely match the (unknown) “ideal dinner” that I would want to eat that night. I might spend a lot of effort just trying to get a better understanding of the infinite space of options that I’m choosing from.

    On the other hand, if I walk into a restaurant, I am faced with a menu of about 15 main choices for the meal. Instead of searching out options on my own, I take a list that someone else has created (possibly with their own benefit, rather than mine, in mind) and choose from that list. I sacrifice the infinite possibilities for the constructive choice in exchange for the much cheaper decision cost and the confidence in the optimality of my choice that I get from a reductive choice.

    Now, let’s get to the meat of the issue. It’s all well and good if people offer reductive choices as an optional service. But what if it’s mandatory? Can this be acceptable? It sounds like you want to reject the claim that the general person is unable to make constructive decisions well. I don’t agree with that. I think most people are very bad at decision-making. It may not be that they’re irrational. They just don’t have the capacity to perform well when faced with a constructive choice, or they aren’t willing to put forth the effort to make a good choice.

    Let’s consider another example: drug use. It’s not impossible to make good decisions about drug use. Drugs can make us feel good, enhance our ability to perform tasks, etc. They also have lots of negative effects, especially if used improperly. And people tend to have very poor judgment about drug use. Thus, the government severely limits our options regarding drug use. This isn’t a perfect example, because I haven’t been explicit about what decision is being made, and anyway our decisions about drug use are still constructive, but my point is that there can be justification for mandatory restriction of choice.

    Well, that’s about all I have to say. In the end, I really agree with you — in most cases, when a powerful organization offers a mandatory reductive choice (or seriously limits the scope of a constructive choice), they’re usually trying to manipulate people for their benefit while leaving an illusion of freedom. But people are also probably less rational than you hope…


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