How do you decide what to do in life? How do you weigh different options? We all make small decisions every day: Do I take the stairs or the elevator? Walk, drive, take public transportation, or Uber? Cook, eat out, grab fast food, or drink Soylent? Attend class or skip? Go to bed early or get some more work done? Read a book or watch TV or Netflix in my free time?
We also make some decisions that have bigger implications for our lives: Where do I go for college? After college, do I get a job or go to grad school? Take a job with higher pay and longer hours or less pay and shorter hours? Work, volunteer, or pick up a hobby on the side? Date casually, seriously, or not at all? Have a child or focus on career? Move to another city or country or stay where I’m at? These problems are harder, but we all know they matter a lot.
Utilitarianism is a mathematical attempt to establish a uniform language here, by asking you to put numbers to your preferences and then just do the math to figure out what’s best. For instance, you can estimate an exchange rate between your time and your money and use this to estimate whether getting an Uber or taking the T is a better deal for you.
Sometimes the math gives you counter-intuitive results. For instance, the website 80000 Hours estimates that you can do much more to help the world by earning a lot of money and giving it to charity than by being a doctor. Surprising results like this have naturally founded communities dedicated to spreading these findings and encouraging more people to take them seriously, all linked under the umbrella name of Effective Altruism.
When I first got to grad school, I was understandably excited to apply this sort of reasoning to my everyday lifestyle choices. I found teaching opportunities to make some money on the side at a pretty good rate, and hoped to use my extra money to buy back some of the time by taking ZipCar and later, Hubway, Uber and Lyft, or just to save or give it away to charity.
I still take that perspective to some extent. In fact, in a certain sense, it’s really hard to argue against utilitarianism. In Econ 121 at Caltech, we learned that under some very weak consistency assumptions, utilitarianism can represent any decision-making system. Nevertheless, I’ve found that in practice, thinking in a purely utilitarian way tends to lead one to systematically ignore some important components of that utility.
Let’s talk about the utilitarian computation based on these natural in-the-moment concerns as the first-order motivation behind your decision. To walk through this, let’s consider the question of what to have for dinner, assuming you don’t have anything already scheduled. Here, the natural first-order concerns are probably who you might eat dinner with, how much dinner will cost, how much time and effort you’ll have to put in, how tasty and filling the meal is, and how healthy it will be.
So you might, for instance, consider cooking at home to do well on health and cost, but give up a bit of time and effort, with taste depending on your skill and socializing depending on how far you can plan ahead and how close you live to friends. Eating out will do well on socializing, taste, time and effort (assuming it’s not far away), but not well on cost and possibly health. If it’s fast food, you’ll do better on cost but worse on health and probably socializing. Soylent will do well on time, effort, cost, and health, but poorly on socializing and taste. Maybe you might want to be environmentally friendly or reduce factory farming with your choices as well, and that can easily be added to this list of concerns.
Depending on how you weigh those concerns and where you live, you might choose any of those options. But what’s naturally missing from that calculation?
One thing I notice is that if you’re bad at cooking, Soylent is just strictly better than trying to cook. This is one reason it’s become so popular: If your cooking isn’t very tasty and you wouldn’t want to subject anyone else to it, why not just mix up some Soylent instead? It isn’t tasty or social either, but it’s far easier than trying to learn how to make something.
The answer, of course, is that knowing how to cook is a skill, and if you give yourself practice, you’ll likely get better and add cooking to your repertoire. At first, it might not taste that good, but it’s an investment into the future. Again, this can be incorporated into your utility calculation, but it’s a different sort of concern, because it will change your future options rather than directly affect the present in an easily measurable way.
Wanting to learn how to cook, then, is a second-order motivation, which I’ll define as a reason to do something based on how it will affect the utility of future, similar scenarios. Learning skills like how to cook is just one example.
As another instance, effective altruism has a lot to say about how to donate money to charity. Dollars abroad almost always go much further than dollars in the US, so they encourage you to donate to international charities. In particular, the website GiveWell compiles information from hundreds of charities with the purpose of finding the most effective charities to donate to, the ones that will do the most good (e.g. save the most lives) per dollar.
The first-order solution to charity at my level of giving, therefore, is to just send whatever money I plan to give away to the top charities on GiveWell every year. What’s wrong with that?
Well, I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and often come across homeless people who beg for money around the major subway stops at Harvard and Central Square. At first, I didn’t carry around cash, so I would just tell them that I didn’t have anything to give them. One man I walked past asked for my sunglasses, though, and I didn’t really have an adequate response to that. Later, I found cash was useful for splitting bills at restaurants, so if I told them instinctively that I didn’t have any cash, I wasn’t even telling the truth.
Considering that scenario in isolation, the utilitarian response is that I shouldn’t feel bad about rejecting their requests for money. Maybe I should do a gut-check to ensure that I’m giving enough money to charity, and donate a little more if I feel bad. But once I’ve given that money, or reliably committed to giving it later, I shouldn’t feel bad about not helping the homeless of Cambridge out.
The problem is that once I started instinctively lying and telling them I didn’t have any cash on me, I realized that I couldn’t just consider this situation in isolation. My heart was becoming calloused; I could feel my compassion slipping away and defensiveness growing. I started justifying the lying to myself.
So I changed my strategy. Taking an idea I got from my mom, I got some $10 McDonald’s gift cards from the grocery store and started giving them out whenever I came across a homeless person looking for money, at least if there was a McDonald’s nearby. (There is a McDonald’s in Central Square, but none at Harvard, so if I ever expect to spend significant time up at Harvard, I’ll look into alternatives like Dunkin’ Donuts.)
I’ve found that this changes the ways that I interact with the homeless around me, and at a very low additional cost compared with the total amount I give to charity. Instead of relying on the anonymity of sunglasses, I can look to bless whoever I run into. Sometimes when I come out of the subway at Central, I’m actually disappointed not to see any homeless people I can treat to a couple meals.
I’m not particularly worried about how effective the gift cards are, but I certainly hope they make a difference, and the recipients seem to act like they will. Gift cards make sure they’ll spend it on food, which everyone needs, and fast food like McDonald’s is cheap and really only unhealthy compared to options they don’t have. That said, the main point is not to do a rigorous job seeing how needy they are and estimating how much I should help them compared with someone else, but just to bless the people around me in a small way to maintain and possibly build my compassion for helping others.
If you think about each of the decisions that I listed at the beginning, there are second-order concerns all over the place.
For instance, I walk places (during warm weather) and take the stairs for the purpose of making myself less lazy. Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal wrote a fascinating comic strip series about why he runs long distances. It’s hilarious and worth reading if you haven’t seen it before, but to summarize, he runs to fight The Blerch, his personification of “all forms of gluttony, apathy, and indifference” in his life.
I don’t run ultramarathons like he does, but I like to think that walking and taking the stairs will improve my inclination to do so in the future, analogous to learning how to cook. It will also hopefully make me less lazy when it comes to meeting up with friends, running errands, and deciding whether to hang out in Grace’s room or mine (not so much of an issue now that we live two doors apart).
While in college, attending class helps you learn how to get value out of attending, while staying home makes it hard to come back to class in the future. Staying up late can make it hard to get any mentally exhausting work done the next day, essentially borrowing from the future. Having the ability to concentrate and read a book for an hour could fade if you just consume entertainment passively. I certainly have noticed that a TV can tend to dominate any other leisure options: When it’s on, it can be difficult to pull your attention away and decide to do something else.
None of this is to say that second-order motivations should always trump first-order motivations, just that we should try to properly weigh them against each other rather than only looking to first order. For instance, I’ve established a habit of taking the stairs by default unless I’m carrying something (like a package or groceries). This way I allow the first-order motivation of convenience the opportunity to outvote my second-order motivation if it is indeed more significant.
The best-case scenario is when first- and second-order motivations point in the same direction. Writing this blog is one example: I certainly hope to be writing about interesting topics to you, but failing that, I also hope to use the experience to make myself a better (more interesting, more efficient) writer.
What about those bigger decisions, like what sort of job to take, whether to move to another country, or whether to have a child? It seems clear that both the first and second-order motivations here are large, so we need to weigh them.
After I came up with the idea for this post, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column titled, “The Big Decisions,” about this very question. He compares these decisions to a choice to become a vampire. Once you make it, it changes so many things about yourself that you really can’t decide if it’s worth it in your current framework. What can you do?
He quotes from the book “Transformative Experience,” by L.A. Paul, a philosophy professor at UNC Chapel Hill. Her answer is essentially that you should evaluate whether you have enough curiosity to see how it will change you.
I think I agree with Brooks that this isn’t nearly sufficient. His own answer is threefold: First, we should consider following cultural scripts that have worked well in the past. Second, we should consider whether a change feels like a calling, drawing on whatever mysticism or destiny we pay attention to. Third and most importantly, we should consider what effect the trait will have on our own morality, like having a child potentially making us more selfless. Will this change make us more or less satisfied with ourselves?
The main thing I’d add is that we can do a lot to help each other make these decisions that we shouldn’t assume come naturally. You might not know what it’s like to have a child, but there are probably new parents you can look to for insights on how it changes them (or better yet, observe them up close yourself!). Beyond natural friendships, living in the middle of a vibrant community (like a church) can give you plenty of examples to draw from and get a more representative sense of how people like you will react to the common jumps. For the slightly less common ones, you can often read first-person accounts of what it was like on blogs or websites like Quora (for instance, their “What is it like to work at X?” questions.)
It’s certainly possible to overemphasize second-order effects, to spend so much time living in the future that you miss the present. Charities that make you feel good but don’t actually deliver are very widespread, maybe even nearly universal as GiveWell suggests. A well-made Christian movie (not an oxymoron!) Believe Me poked some good fun at this last year: The main character sets up a fake charity called Get Wells Soon, justifying to his friends that people go to charity events not to help people, but to feel like they’re helping people.
But I think most people reading this face the opposite problem. It’s not easy to estimate second-order effects — they’re proportional to how many times you’ll face a similar problem again, but maybe you don’t know how much you’ll enjoy cooking. So many of us are tempted to ignore them and just settle for the immediate and visible fruits of now.