Against unreasonably high standards

Consider the following procedure:

  1. Create unreasonably high standards that people are supposed to follow.
  2. Watch as people fail to meet them and thereby accumulate “debt”.
  3. Provide a way for people to discharge their debt by sacrificing their agency to some entity (concrete or abstract).

This is a common way to subjugate people and extract resources from them.  Some examples:

  • Christianity: Christianity defines many natural human emotions and actions as “sins” (i.e. things that accumulate debt), such that almost all Christians sin frequently.  Even those who follow all the rules have “original sin”.  Christianity allows people to discharge their debt by asking Jesus to bear their sins (thus becoming subservient to Jesus/God).
  • The Western education system: Western schools (and many non-Western schools) create unnatural standards of behavior that are hard for students to follow.  When students fail to meet these standards, they are told they deserve punishments including public humiliation and being poor as an adult.  School doesn’t give a way to fully discharge debts, leading to anxiety and depression in many students and former students, but people can partially discharge debt by admitting that they are in an important sense subservient to the education system (e.g. accepting domination from the more-educated boss in the workplace).
  • Effective altruism: The drowning child argument (promoted by effective altruists such as Peter Singer) argues that middle-class Americans have an obligation to sacrifice luxuries to save the lives of children in developing countries, or do something at least this effective (in practice, many effective altruists instead support animal welfare or existential risk organizations).  This is an unreasonably high standard; nearly no one actually sacrifices all their luxuries (living in poverty) to give away more money.  Effective altruism gives a way to discharge this debt: you can just donate 10% of your income to an effective charity (sacrificing some of your agency to it), or change your career to a more good-doing one.  (This doesn’t work for everyone, and many “hardcore EAs” continue to struggle with scrupulosity despite donating much more than 10% of their income or changing their career plans significantly, since they always could be doing more).
  • The rationalist community: I hesitate to write this section for a few reasons (specifically, it’s pretty close to home and is somewhat less clear given that some rationalists have usefully criticized some of the dynamics I’m complaining about).  But a subtext I see in the rationalist community says something like: “You’re biased so you’re likely to be wrong and make bad decisions that harm other people if you take actions in the world, and it’ll be your fault.  Also, the world is on fire and you’re one of the few people who knows about this, so it’s your responsibility to do something about it.  Luckily, you can discharge some of your debts by improving your own rationality, following the advice of high-level rationalists, and perhaps giving them money.”  That’s clearly an instance of this pattern; no one is unbiased, “high-level rationalists” included.  (It’s hard to say where exactly this subtext comes from, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s “fault”, but it definitely seems to exist; I’ve been affected by it myself, and I think it’s part of what causes akrasia in many rationalists.)

There are many more examples; I’m sure you can think of some.  Setting up a system like this has some effects:

  • Hypocrisy: Almost no one actually follows the standards, but they sometimes pretend they do.  Since standards are unreasonably high, they are enforced inconsistently, often against the most-vulnerable members of a group, while the less-vulnerable maintain the illusion that they are actually following the standards.
  • Self-violence: Buying into unreasonably high standards will make someone turn their mind against itself.  Their mind will split between the “righteous” part that is trying to follow and enforce the unreasonably high standards, and the “sinful” part that is covertly disobeying these standards in order to get what the mind actually wants (which is often in conflict with the standards).  Through neglect and self-violence, the “sinful” part of the mind develops into a shadow.  Self-hatred is a natural results of this process.
  • Distorted perception and cognition: The righteous part of the mind sometimes has trouble looking at ways in which the person is failing to meet standards (e.g. it will avoid looking at things that the person might be responsible for fixing).  Consciousness will dim when there’s risk of seeing that one is not meeting the standards (and sometimes also when there’s risk of seeing that others are not meeting the standards).  Concretely, one can imagine someone who gets lost surfing the internet to avoid facing some difficult work they’re supposed to do, or someone who avoids thinking about the ways in which their project is likely to fail.  Given the extent of the high standards and the debt that most people feel they are in, this will often lead to extremely distorted perception and cognition, such that coming out of it feels like waking from a dream.
  • Motivational problems: Working is one way to discharge debt, but working is less motivating if all products of your work go to debt-collectors rather than yourself.  The “sinful” part of the mind will resist work, as it expects to derive little benefit from it.
  • Fear: Accumulating lots of debt gives one the feeling that, at any time, debt-collectors could come and demand anything of you.  This causes the scrupulous to live in fear.  Sometimes, there isn’t even a concretely-identifiable entity they’re afraid of, but it’s clear that they’re afraid of something.

Systems involving unreasonably high standards could theoretically be justified if they were good coordination mechanisms.  But it seems implausible that they are.  Why not just make the de jure norms ones that people are actually likely to follow?  Surely a sufficient set of norms exists, since people are already following the de facto ones.  You can coordinate a lot without optimizing your coordination mechanism for putting everyone in debt!

I take the radical position that TAKING UNREASONABLY HIGH STANDARDS SERIOUSLY IS A REALLY BAD IDEA and ALL OF MY FRIENDS AND PERHAPS ALL HUMANS SHOULD STOP DOING IT.  Unreasonably high standards are responsible for a great deal of violence against life, epistemic problems, and horribleness in general.

(It’s important to distinguish having unreasonably high standards from having a preference ordering whose most-preferred state is impractical to attain; the second does not lead to the same problems unless there’s some way of obligating people to reach an unreasonably good state in the preference ordering.  Attaining a decent but non-maximally-preferred state should perhaps feel annoying or aesthetically displeasing, but not anxiety-inducing.)

My advice to the scrupulous: you are being scammed and you are giving your life away to scammers.  The debts that are part of this scam are fake, and you can safely ignore almost all of them since they won’t actually be enforced.  The best way to make the world better involves first refusing to be scammed, so that you can benefit from the products of your own labor (thereby developing intrinsic motivation to do useful things) instead of using them to pay imaginary debts, and so you can perceive the world accurately without fear.  You almost certainly have significant intrinsic motivation for helping others; you are more likely to successfully help them if your help comes from intrinsic motivation and abundance rather than fear and obligation.